Young Voters Could Be the Deciding Factor in Florida

  • Share
  • Read Later
Orlando Sentinel / MCT / Landov

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama greets cheering supporters as he takes the stage at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

(2 of 2)

Student GOP leaders like York say Obama has also been helped by the fact that he's vastly outspending McCain at their schools — part of the Obama campaign's vow to shell out a whopping $39 million in Florida this fall. "We too are saturating Facebook,"says York, whose group has reached out to younger voters with slogans like "Vote for the Hero and the Hottie," referring to McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. "But the Republican Party needs to get more serious and creative about this group."

The Obama campaign, by contrast, has been tapping the power of the Internet since it began almost two years ago. Last month, when it wanted to alert backers at the University of Florida that Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker would be speaking on Obama's behalf on the sprawling Gainesville campus, it went to cyberspace instead of the quad. "The campaign texted us,"boasts Moller. "They also use Facebook a lot. They make the extra effort to connect with younger voters."

The question is whether this group — which always talks an idealistic game but tends to sleep in on election day — has gotten more serious about actually turning out to vote. More than 150,000 voters under age 30 voted in Florida's Democratic primary this year, despite the fact that Obama didn't even campaign there because the national party had ruled the election wouldn't count. (That was due to Florida changing its primary date in violation of both GOP and Democratic Party rules). Almost 135,000 in that age group voted in the state's Republican primary. Those figures still accounted for less than 10% of all Florida primary voters, but they represented a 14% turnout for that bloc, up from a measly 4% in 2000.

Scher also notes that in a state where almost a fifth of the total electorate are independents, many of Florida's young voters have no party affiliation. That, he argues, makes them an even more important swing constituency. "Our generation doesn't like labels,"says Moller. "But I do think we're going to turn Florida from an independent state that votes Republican to one that votes Democrat."

That's hardly certain yet, especially since younger voters will still have to prove they can keep up with their elders, who are famous for turnout rates as high as 80% in Florida. They will also have to show that they can affect the vote of Florida blocs like African-Americans and Latinos. Florida's 1.3 million registered black voters, so many of whom felt disenfranchised in the 2000 Florida recount debacle, were uninspired by Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004 and are a question mark in 2008. As a result, "to a large degree we're counting on young African-Americans," who connect with Obama more readily than their parents or grandparents do, "to bring the black vote up to where we need it in Florida," says an Obama campaign official. Obama faces a tougher time with Latinos, who according to a recent poll favor McCain in Florida by 51% to 41%. Again, Obama is counting on younger Latinos like Esteban Morera, 18, a Miamian and UCF freshman, to keep him competitive in that community. Morera says he was undecided until McCain selected Palin last month. "It helped confirm for me that I really like Obama's ideas on solving Iraq better,"says Morera.

Young Florida Republicans like Griffin are just as convinced that "being young, you know you don't have the experience to run the country, that someone like John McCain does and someone like Barack Obama doesn't." Either way, given how controversially razor-thin Florida electoral victories tend to be these days, the fresh-faced could tip the balance in November — if not with their own ballots, then by convincing their elders which way to vote. One of the most popular videos on YouTube in recent weeks features comedian Sarah Silverman imploring young Jews to "get your fat asses on a plane to Florida" and lobby their grandparents there to vote Obama because "no one is more influential over them" than their grandkids — part of an organized grassroots initiative known as The Great Schlep. But airfares being what they are today, the Obama campaign might advise them to just drop them a text message.

(View a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)

(See TIME's pictures of the week here.)

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next