The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory

Those of us in the progressive youth movement have been talking about the importance of young voter outreach for a long time now. We tried to drive home the point that young voters are not apathetic, but disengaged due to that self-fulfilling prophecy of traditional campaign ‘wisdom.’ Youth political organizations kept succeeding, increasing youth turnout in 2004 and 2006. David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and Barack Obama eschewed tradition by deciding from the beginning that organizing young voters to expand the electorate would be the key to victory.

“One of [Paul] Tewes’s ideas was to make sure we were working every community, no matter how small. African American, Latino, high school kids, Republicans–we had staff assigned to all of the demographics, months ahead of our competition.” The Obama campaign began by working hard to turn out the potential voters that traditional campaigns write off. While critics of the youth vote claim that 2008 was a fluke and just about Obama, it is clear that the campaign worked hard to organize youth that had never been asked for their vote by a campaign. The campaign knew that they “would win Iowa only on the backs of independents, Republicans, young voters, and new registrants–a scary proposition, to say the least.”

The campaign was able to look at the election through the lens of a young voter. “At least 95 percent of our six thousand employees were under the age of thirty, most under the age of twenty-five.” While it is not uncommon for a lot of campaign staff to be young, what was exceptional about the Obama campaign was the respect for them and the willingness to trust their instincts on what was happening on the ground.

We adjusted accordingly, adding more media and Internet advertising geared exclusively to younger voters; we prepared to do a lot more instructional and informative work with our supporters so they knew how to caucus, while trying not to spook them; and we redoubled our efforts to attract support from conventional caucus Democrats so our newbies in certain precincts were matched with some grizzled veterans.

The campaign invested in “advertising specifically geared toward women, seniors, and younger voters, African Americans and Latinos.” The messaging of the youth advertising reflected an understanding of the generation: “spots for those under thirty were very aspirational, a call to action, focusing on issues like Iraq and the environment, and calling on younger voters to get involved in shaping the future.” Young voters, used to being ignored, were finally being engaged by a campaign with the same effort and respect showed to seniors.

The Obama campaign conceived of and executed a strategy to expand the electorate by registering and turning out young voters and other traditionally underrepresented demographics. Here are a few passages from The Audacity to Win on how this strategy became a winning one:

As the returns came in we could see the traces of our strategy’s design: by registering over one hundred thousand new voters, producing strong turnout among African Americans and young voters, and winning college-educated whites thanks to our stand against the gas tax, we had made ourselves unbeatable in North Carolina.

We registered many thousands of new voters in both states, and these voters participated at high rates, defying the conventional view that new registrants turn out in very low numbers. A strong showing from African Americans and younger voters might put both these states in play in the general election.

If we did not register enough African Americans and young voters in North Carolina and then turn them out on Election Day, we could not win. Facing a traditional electorate meant we shouldn’t even bother with a state like North Carolina, no matter how much money we spent.

By focusing their attention on young voters and actually spending resources on research, the campaign learned new things about new and young voters. An example was when their numbers showed that they were not meeting their initial goals for youth early voting:

First, many young voters were so excited by this election that they couldn’t envision doing anything besides voting for Barack Obama in person at the polling location. When we raised with them the possibility of long lines, or the potential to free themselves up to volunteer, they simply wouldn’t budge. This was a big moment for them and they felt it would seem bigger if they voted at the polls. In any case, they were still dead-set on participating, which relieved us.

The second lesson was that there was still some confusion about who was eligible to vote early and how it worked. Armed with these findings, we made sure our communications to younger voters included even more remedial information about the nuts and bolts of early voting. Soon enough, their numbers began to climb. In many states we lowered our expectations for the under-twenty-five early vote (but not for overall turnout), and we eventually hit those numbers in most battlegrounds.

Republicans have spent a lot of effort in previous campaigns spreading misinformation to young voters about such things as early voting, residency, and registration. By putting in the effort to combat that misinformation, the campaign was able to empower and turn out voters who were unsure of the sometimes complex election laws.

As we now know, this strategy of reaching out to young voters paid off, despite the naysayers from the media and the old school political establishment:

Our base–African Americans, sporadic-voting Democrats, and younger voters–was turning out in larger numbers than McCain’s base in most states.

The share of the electorate over sixty-five actually dropped between 2004 and 2008, not because fewer older voters turned out but because younger ones showed up in droves.

Because the Obama campaign was committed to putting effort and resources in registering and turning out young voters, treating them with the same respect as other demographics, they were able to build on the work done by youth organizations since 2000 to culminate with those voters carrying Obama to victory and the presidency. However, culminate may not be the appropriate word. The work in further expanding the electorate by turning out young voters to elect Democrats is far from over. There is more potential for the Millennial generation to not only expand the electorate in an election, but to fundamentally alter the country for the better.

I’ll leave you with David Plouffe’s words on our generation:

I left the campaign extraordinarily confident about the future of the country, because of the talent and drive of the young men and women who made our victory possible. Certainly, we would not have won the primary or the general without a surging youth turnout in any number of states, Iowa most importantly. But their impact on the election goes beyond casting ballots. Most of our staff was under thirty, many of them were under twenty-five, as were a sizable chunk of our most active volunteers. As I witnessed, sometimes in awe, their performance and desire to look beyond themselves and contribute to a better world (and they have a distinctly global outlook) it gave me extreme comfort to know that in the not so distant future they will be taking the reins and leading our companies, campaigns, and institutions. For my generation, the rocking chair beckons–these kids are that good. I can’t wait to experience their leadership and vision in the years to come.