POLITICS

Obama seeks to energize young voters in Virginia

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Politics,Virginia,Steve Contorno

RICHMOND -- President Obama will try to re-engage Virginia's young voters next week with a groundbreaking two-day gathering of college students whose support propelled him to victory in 2008 and whose support he needs to re-energize his re-election bid.

Obama for America will host a student summit Feb. 25 and 26 in Richmond, The Washington Examiner has learned, to rally the young voters who turned out in droves for the junior senator from Illinois four years ago. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in half a century, and he has allocated significant resources in hopes of reprising that performance.

Details for the event are still under wraps but should be available on the re-election website (Barack Obama.com/Young-Americans) next week, according to the campaign. The campaign hosted its first youth summit in November at the University of Pennsylvania in another swing state vital to the president's effort to win a second term.

Young voters who traditionally don't turnout in heavy numbers played a key role for Obama in 2008, both at the polls and on the campaign trail, where their presence catapulted him from insurgent politician to international icon. In that election, exit polls showed two-thirds of 18-to29-year-old voters cast ballots for Obama nationwide. In Virginia, 60 percent of the youth vote went to Obama.

Four years earlier, just 54 percent of the country's youth vote went to the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

But after three years in office, Obama is no longer the candidate looking to transcend the Washington political culture, but rather an incumbent marred by a slow economic recovery and congressional deadlock that resulted from partisan squabbling. Convincing young voters to mobilize once more is a far more onerous task than it was four years ago, said Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

"You can't be 'the next big thing' when you're already president," Farnsworth said. "This is why you see such a full-court press from him. It's not just the occasional effort to woo young people."

In veering from the 2008 script, Obama's campaign is instead offering voters a choice between the current administration and a Republican field that is moving to the political right to win over conservative primary voters. It's a message especially important to young voters, who overwhelmingly align with liberals on social issues, and it was a recurring theme of the Pennsylvania rally.

"Of course the fundamentals of the campaign are different [than in 2008], but students recognize there is an alternative," said Andrew Silverstein, president of the University of Pennsylvania Democrats. "People left knowing the president is focused on issues that matter to students."

About 400 people turned out on a Tuesday night for the Pennsylvania summit to hear from administration officials and campaign staff, and 6,000 more tuned in online. Richmond's summit is over a weekend, so it could be a much larger affair.

"The youth vote traditionally has not been all that reliable," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Young folks have a lot of energy, but harnessing that energy can be difficult at times."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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