Surge of new voters aids Obama's victory
Inarguably the most important election in American history, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama clinched the presidency by a landslide Tuesday evening over Arizona Sen. John McCain, bringing an end to a long, grueling campaign driven by discussions of change and a mindset of "yes, we can."
But while some may have differing opinions on what gave Obama an edge over McCain, Eagleton Institute of Politics Associate Director John Weingart said it might be the confidence Obama exuded leading up to Election Day, his long-standing message of change and a surge of new voters since the 2004 election.
"I think both McCain and Obama tried to appeal to the desire of change, but Obama got there first," Weingart said. "My sense is that voters found [Obama's] message more compelling, and that Obama had a larger capacity and a greater chance to be a good or great president, more so than McCain."
Weingart said there was a lot of talk leading up to the election about whether McCain had the temperament to be president, which can be a very elusive factor.
"However, in the fall, Obama's temperament came through in a way that we had never really seen before," Weingart said.
And in the wake of one of the largest American financial crises and two international wars, Tuesday's election came in voter numbers the nation has never seen before.
"There have been campaigns that have attracted great passion and enthusiasm, but never like this," Weingart said. "The way it has become the subject of conversation for the past many months is really unprecedented. One of the benefits of that is a lot of new people were voting for the first time in a long time."
A large portion of new voters were from the youth population, which increased by nearly 2.2 million since the 2004 presidential election, according to data released by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
At the University alone, nearly 6,000 students were registered to vote thanks to recruiting efforts by the RU Voting Coalition, comprised of organizations like the New Jersey Public Interest and Research Group, Empower Our Neighborhoods, the RU Democrats, the Centurion and others, said Rosaria Matos, student board chair of NJPIRG and a Livingston College junior.
"We came together because we all care about the election and we wanted to do something about it. We realized that we'd be more effective working in a larger unit," Matos said. "Our mission was to register students to vote and turn them out to the polls on Election Day. Our goal is to get politicians to care about young people and show that we are engaged in the election. Traditionally, the 18 to 24 age bracket does not have the highest percentages of voters, and we wanted to change that."
And efforts made by organizations such as the Student PIRGs New Voters Project to recruit voters at colleges and universities around the country may have contributed to that change.
"Young voter outreach efforts employed an array of tactics to mobilize young voters to the polls," according to a Student PIRGs New Voters Project press release. "On 100 campuses in 17 states, the Student PIRGs New Voters Project combined old-fashioned pavement-pounding with technology to reach the wired world of the young voter."
Students on campuses across the country stormed residence halls, invaded classrooms and even staged guerilla theatre performances to urge young voters to the polls, while employing a cadre of tech tools — from Facebook to "Text Out the Vote" tables to urge their friends to the polls, according to the release.
"The primary lesson of this election is that when you pay attention to young people, they will turn out on Election Day," said Sujatha Jahagirdar, the program director for the Student PIRGs New Voters Project.
Weingart said studies of voting have shown for decades that once people start to vote, they become regular voters.
"[This new voter surge] has the potential to do a lot of good for democracy, making it a much more participatory sport than it was over the last generation when the number of voters was going down," Weingart said. "For voters who start young, it becomes a habit and a good habit."
Weingart said he thinks more citizens came out to vote because they were tired of the Bush administration's policies over the last eight years and wanted to contribute to a change for the country.
"[They felt] there was a hunger for an administration and a president who was more competent and better at bringing people together to govern the whole country and not just the voters who had supported the winner," Weingart said.