Rocking the vote 2008


Friday, March 14

Andrew McKeever

Managing Editor

MANCHESTER - Millions of dollars spent and months of campaigning have yet to yield a clear Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, but as far as many young voters go, it's already over: Obama's the one.

Across the nation, youthful voters have provided the early momentum and energy behind the Illinois senator's bid for the nation's highest office. That pattern is much in evidence locally as well.

Talk to a group of local politically tuned in teenagers old enough to be voting for the first time this November, and the only question left to ponder is how big a margin will Obama win the youth demographic by, assuming he gets his party's nomination in the first place. That was starting to take on an air of inevitability until the March 4 primaries. Then Hillary Clinton won three of four states in play that day - Vermont being the lone exception. Suddenly, Obama's momentum has hit an air pocket, and another Clinton comeback cannot be ruled out.

Obama may be entering a point in the Presidential race where his positions and qualifications come under closer scrutiny, and how that affects the positive impressions most young voters have formed so far based in part on his message of ditching the sterile politics of past years in favor of a more consensus-building approach remains to be seen.

But if a series of three interviews conducted over the past month with a total of 17 local high school students from Arlington Memorial High School, Long Trail School and Burr and Burton Academy about their Presidential preferences is any indication, Obama will be the beneficiary of some outsized support from the young, first-time voters. It's a small and admittedly unscientific sampling of local teen political opinion, but it still provides a window into their thinking on the candidates and the issues they consider important.

"I think America's ready for a change and for the last 20 years there's been a Bush or a Clinton on the ballot," said John Gunther of Arlington. "Hillary and Obama are both similar but I identify with Obama more."

Within this group, 11 said Obama was their first choice. Hillary Clinton has varying levels of support as a second choice among Obama supporters. She would be the most likely to inherit Obama's supporters should he fall short of claiming the big prize. Only two of the 17 students mentioned her as their first choice, with three others falling into the "undecided" camp - undecided between Clinton and Obama. Two others indicated a liking for Senator John McCain, who has now clinched enough delegate support to be assured of the Republican Party's nomination, although one of them also gave Obama as a first choice.

Bringing the country together, representing a break with the polarizing politics of recent decades, are seen as part of Obama's attractiveness, several said. "I think it's important to have someone like Obama who can reach out to the Republican and Democrat sides and get past the partisan politics and get everyone excited," said Mary Kate Kelly of Burr and Burton. "It's not so much the issues that I'm looking at because I think that the unity of the country is more important at this time."

Clinton has her backers too. Some were drawn to the idea of helping make history - electing the first female president. Others simply saw her as the stronger candidate.

"With all that she's been through with her husband I think she's proven she's a tough woman," said Adrienne Corey, a Clinton supporter from Arlington High School. "She stood there after her husband cheated on her with someone from the office and she could stand tall - she sees what goes down. She has an outsiders' perspective as well as an inside one."

Megan Nemlich of Burr and Burton said that if she could have voted in the Vermont primary, it would have been for Clinton, even though Obama was probably the more electable of the two.

"I can't wait to vote for a woman for President," she said. "I think Hillary is a woman completely capable of it and I don't know how long it will be before we see another one who is this capable and qualified."

Not qualified enough though, to be a commander-n-chief, said Jeremy Dancy of Arlington, who favors Barack Obama.

"It's time for a change and he's an African-American - I wouldn't mind seeing a woman president, but I don't think Hillary Clinton would be a good President at a time of war because - I'm not trying to be sexist about it - but a female at a time of war I don't think would be the best idea," he said. None of this would seem to be happy news for Republicans. Only time will tell if these students' preferences are the product of this election's batch of personalities, peer pressure, the issues of the day, and an idealistic view of possibilities that as Time Magazine stated in a recent article about the impact of under-30 years-old voters is "the native tongue of the young."

"If Obama gets the nomination I'll vote for him," said Jennifer Britton of Long Trail School. "I don't like Hillary Clinton personally, but I think she'd be a good president."

Nevertheless, she will vote for Clinton over any Republican, she said.

McCain is the first choice of Ashley Hoyt, an Arlington senior. "I agree with most of what he's saying and what he wants to do," she said.

Cody Johnson of Burr and Burton said he likes Obama - "he's young, and represents change" - but also likes McCain, if put off somewhat by his age. McCain will be 72 by the time the next president is inaugurated, which would make him the oldest President ever sworn into office.

But beyond the age issue, the Arizona senator may have hurt himself in some young voter's eyes by a perception he has backed off from the authentic self he portrayed in his presidential bid of 2000, when he charged in aboard his campaign bus "The straight Talk Express" as a maverick who espoused straightforward, pragmatic values from Main Street, U.S.A. Since then, he has at times appeared to cozy up to the far right-wing of the Republican party, presumably to sharpen his electoral bona fides among those voters. That was a mistake, said Peter Caras of Long Trail School.

"I liked him, but he pandered to the right wing for the right wing vote," he said. "He used to be tough on his stances but now there's a lot of God references - it rings false with me as opposed to the old McCain."

When it comes to the key issues that are driving their choices of candidates, the war in Iraq is the overriding issue. The only question is how do we get out. The financial cost of the war alone makes that imperative, said Sam Krause of Long Trail.

"If we pulled out tomorrow it would have cost us $2 trillion," he said. "I think it's just ridiculous that we're there and should be pulling out. I know the Democrats have proposed getting out as soon as possible - Obama would most likely pull the troops out ASAP."

"There are many issues here in the U.S. we need to deal with," said Adrienne Corey of Arlington. "All this money could go towards all this poverty," she said. "We should be trying to help ourselves."

"There are so many casualties, wounded soldiers, mental problems, and not enough medical care," said Lindsey Hunter of Long Trail School. "It's time to pull out and give the troops a break."

But leaving Iraq has to be done the right way, said Peter Caras of Long Trail.

"I don't believe in war, but Iraq will dissolve into civil war immediately," he said.

"We shouldn't just withdraw from Iraq immediately, that could lead to problems," said Jeremy Dancy of Arlington.

"We need to put more troops in Afghanistan, that's where the problems actually are," said John Gunther of Arlington. "Iraq is hurting us in foreign policy. We need to get out. We need to protect our embassy and our interests but other than that we need to get out of Iraq." When it comes to other issues, the students cite a wide variety of others: Health insurance, education, immigration, the environment, the economy, abortion, gay marriage, concerns about the erosion of constitutional liberties from unwarranted government surveillance and stem cell research. Foreign trade, the globalization of the world's economy and its impact on jobs are clearly on the minds of these students. The jury may still be out on whether trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that became a political hot potato during the March 4 primaries are a good idea, but several were skeptical. They are well aware of the prospect of an economic slowdown and are already feeling in their own lives. One student saw her work hours cutback at a local store and then her job eliminated. Another spoke of the impact of high gas prices on commuting back and forth to school. Others worried about being prepared for the economy of the future, and the jobs that will be available.

"Many of the jobs that we might get after college don't even exist yet," said Megan Nemlich of BBA. "At the same time, who knows what other person from some other country is more qualified for that job? It should be the person most qualified, but I have to worry about Americans being the most qualified for those jobs." Globalization is a big deal, said Andrew Alden of Burr and Burton.

"Jobs will stay in America as long as it's price efficient and jobs will go to China if it's cheaper," he said.

"We need to end free trade agreements because they are benefiting other countries than the U.S.," said John Gunther of Arlington.

"They're just helping corporate America, not the average citizen."

Of the cluster of other issues discussed over the course of nearly two hours of interviews, two stood out: Immigration and civil liberties, particularly in the arena of abortion and gay marriage.

Those who mentioned these subjects as major issues for them all spoke in favor of lifting restrictions on gay marriage and abortion and all, to a greater or lesser extent, favored an immigration policy that provided people who may have arrived here outside the traditional channels with a pathway to citizenship. "I'm very pro-choice and I believe it's a person's decision (about whether or not to have an abortion)," said Nichole Erthein of Long Trail School, an Obama supporter. "Obama separates church and state and wouldn't let other religious faiths dictate opinion." Monica Beers of Burr and Burton, undecided between Clinton and Obama, said environmental issues were a major concern for her, but the abortion issue was important as well.

"I believe women should have a choice because sometimes the situation is out of their control," she said. And here she agrees with Hillary Clinton's approach - being pro-choice without being pro-abortion, she said.

"I'm proud to come from Vermont because of our policies on civil unions," said Megan Nemlich of Burr and Burton. "I'm extremely pro gay marriage and would like to see that become law."

A tolerant policy towards immigration is another hallmark of their thinking, several said.

"I think that Obama wants to try to give immigrants a chance to live in the country instead of sending them back home," said Michael Cervini of Arlington. The idea of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep would-be immigrants out seemed ridiculous to her, said Leah Rome of Burr and Burton. "I'm not in favor of 'cheap' labor (but) I don't think immigration should be stricter - we shouldn't stop immigrants," she said.

"There's no question that people who work here should get citizenship," said Andrew Alden of Burr and Burton. "If they work here, they should see a way they would eventually get fair wages and social security."

Whether Obama can maintain the level of support he has enjoyed so far among younger voters will be one of the more intriguing sub-plots of the now extended primary season that looms ahead, with Clinton's campaign now off life support as a result of her primary victories in Ohio and Texas. Despite a string of electoral successes, Obama still hasn't beaten Clinton in any of the big states where national elections are typically decided - Clinton beat him in New York and California, for example, and Pennsylvania should be prime territory for Clinton's pitch that her experience means she's more knowledgeable in a crisis or uncertain times. So far, for younger voters, that claim of better leadership growing out of experience is a non-starter.

Even Hillary Clinton's signature issue - health insurance, the one that got her national attention in 1993-4- isn't cutting much mustard with younger voters yet, it seems.

"I wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton because of health care - she hasn't explained where the money would come from," said Hannah Ogden of Long Trail School, who was wearing an Obama T-shirt the day of her group's interview. It's not like the recent run of "experienced" leaders have done all that great a job, said Monica Beers of BBA.

"We need someone younger with new ideas and maybe who doesn't even know how things work so he's not trapped inside this pre-conceived box," she said. "Obama is more like us, he's a fresh voice and that's so appealing," said Megan Nemlich. "To our generation, Hillary Clinton is our grandmother. Obama is our parent's age - just that makes him more appealing."

But elsewhere, a backlash may be starting to gather momentum. With six weeks to go before the next and perhaps decisive primary in Pennsylvania some political pundits are expecting things to start getting nasty between Clinton and Obama. The question for Obama will now be, some say, whether the consensus builder, non-traditional politician who wants to get away from the partisan politics of yesteryear can win without "going negative." And if he does get down into the trenches for some good old-fashioned political mudslinging, does that undermine the fundamental source of his appeal? Is there really a "new way" waiting for the right leader to articulate it, or is politics, when all is sugared off, always going to be plain old ugly politics?

Regardless, the students all seem to realize the 2008 election will be an historic one, with the nation at a crossroads internationally and in terms of domestic issues, and with two untraditional candidates in Clinton and Obama vying for their party's nomination. "It's inspiring to see that people are ready to make the change," said Adrienne Corey of Arlington. "We've opened ourselves to the opportunity even if neither wins - it's nice to see that it could happen and we're accepting of the idea."


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