'Camp Obama' draws young volunteers to campaign--Dozens of high school and college students report Monday for the first week of a new summer camp, where the setting is a makeshift campaign office in a Loop high-rise and the activities include learning how to work a phone bank and knock on doors.
"Camp Obama," as it's called, also will offer a twist on the campfire chat: Campers will be schooled in the policies and promises of Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat whose presidential campaign is sponsoring the program.
The camp is one of several early efforts by presidential campaigns to court voters under 30, an age bracket growing in size and political interest with the potential to wield significant influence in the next election.
The campaigns have adopted new-media strategies aimed, at least in part, at Generation Facebook, and most are trying to turn the networks they build on-line into more old-fashioned activism.
Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for instance, has offered students a commission on the money they raise for his campaign. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) recently launched a text-messaging campaign, along with an on-line contest to pick her theme song.
Skeptical political veterans question whether a heavy investment in youth outreach is a high-yield proposition. Historically, young voters are significantly less likely than their elders to actually show up for primaries, caucuses and elections.
But those tracking the political interest among young people believe it's on the rise, and that efforts to get them involved are improving with every new Internet and social networking tool.
"Young adults are poised to become a real force in elections," said Kathleen Barr, research director at Young Voter Strategies, a non-partisan organization based at George Washington University. "This generation is more engaged than young adults in the past, in politics and community service, and the work everyone is doing to reach out to them is just more effective."
Depending on how big a pay-off they anticipate, campaigns are investing in youth outreach to varying degrees.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor seeking the Republican nomination, is polling high among voters between 18 and 24, according to a recent survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. .
Clinton has a volunteer youth coordinator who will join the campaign full-time in a few weeks. Students for Hillary chapters are forming on college campuses.
Democratic presidential contender John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, recently ran a cross-country college tour trying to gin up campus activism for his campaign.
In addition, several non-partisan groups are working to promote turnout among voters under 30. The New Voters Project, formed in 2004 to recruit students, is planning to register voters on college campuses, in part by going door to door in dormitories.
Rock the Vote, which got more than 1 million people to download their voter registration forms from their web site, will repeat the effort in 2008.
Over the years, political veterans have come to the conclusion that youth voters aren't a good investment. In 1972, just more than 55 percent of eligible voters under 30 went to the polls, a high mark reached while the draft for the Viet Nam War was in effect.
Since then, the youth voting rate has risen over half just once, when 52 percent turned out in the 1992 presidential election.
For that reason, campaigns often set up only a bare-bones youth program but don't really give it a lot of attention.
"It's not unusual for presidential campaigns to give a nod to reaching out" to the young voters, said Ken Stroupe, chief of staff for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "There's a great deal of debate about whether it actually results in motivating young people to participate at higher levels . . . It's one thing to have young people putting posters on their dorm room doors. It's quite another to get them to attend the convention or the primary or the caucus."
Howard Dean devoted substantial resources to young voters in 2004, Stroupe notes, but his primary bid fizzled when his network of on-line supporters failed to show up in numbers strong enough to nominate him.
But others say such conclusions are based on statistics that are too old to be instructive.
"That's so 1996," said Hans Riemer, the former Rock the Vote organizer now running Obama's youth operation. "Over the last couple of elections, we've seen young people's participation starting to climb. And new tools are in development that allow you to reach them . . . You can't blame campaigns for not reaching out to young people if they don't know who they are, where they live and how to reach them, but that is changing dramatically."
Though it's hard to tell exactly how much each of the campaigns is pouring into youth outreach, the Obama operation appears to be devoting at least as much as other campaigns.
Riemer is a paid staffer dedicated full-time to youth outreach, and he has two full-time staff deputies. In addition, the campaign is paying youth staff in early primary states, though officials won't say how many there are or where, exactly, they work.
Those staffers work in tandem with Students for Barack Obama, a group of Obama supporters who met up via Facebook and formed their own independent group but who now coordinate their activities with the official campaign.
Camp Obama is a separate operation, not unlike the training sessions routinely held by political campaigns for smaller groups of people. It's open to volunteers of all ages, but most of the 1,500 who have signed up so far are college students.
On Monday, 50 people will arrive for the camp in the new offices, decorated with some inexpensive office furniture and set up like a campaign headquarters. Half the attendees come from the Chicago area, so they'll stay overnight at home, while the others will board with Obama supporters who have volunteered to take them in.
During the day, they'll learn practical campaign skills - "Campaigning 101," one organizer called it - and also will hear from longtime Obama friends and associates who will talk about his biography and policy positions.
Riemer's division isn't running the camp, but Obama aides say that reflects an attempt to focus every part of the campaign partly on young voters.
"The bottom line is, we have to leverage the entire campaign," said Riemer. "Everyone involved in the campaign has to incorporate it in some matter. That's the hardest part. That's what campaigns typically don't do."