Senator Claire McCaskill is the highest-ranking Democrat in Missouri, and Missouri picks Presidents. The Show-Me State has voted for the winner in 25 of the past 26 elections. This is why the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination fought so hard for McCaskill's endorsement. As her wary advisers helped her weigh the risks and rewards of siding with powerful Hillary Clinton or charismatic Barack Obama, neutrality began to look appealingly safe.
But there's something about an 18-year-old that can't abide careful hedging and cautious steps. The Senator's daughter Maddie Esposito had seen the way her mother teared up whenever she heard Obama speak. And now it was happening again as mother and daughter sat side by side on the family-room sofa in a suburb of St. Louis, watching the results of the Iowa caucuses on TV. "You know you believe in him," Maddie admonished her damp-eyed mother. "It's time to step up." The next morning, Maddie, a college freshman home for the holidays, added a threat: "You have to do it, or I'm never talking to you again."
McCaskill endorsed Obama a big boost in an important Super Tuesday primary state. And the story of that endorsement is the Democratic-nomination battle etched in miniature. Kids like Maddie Esposito are the muscle of Obama's army. His campaign has become the first in decades maybe in history to be carried so far on the backs of the young. His crushing margin of victory in Iowa came almost entirely from voters under 25 years old, and as the race moved to New Hampshire and Nevada, their votes helped him stay competitive. In South Carolina on Saturday, Jan. 26, Obama's better than 3-to-1 advantage among under-30 voters more than neutralized Clinton's narrower edge among over-65s. Now, as the candidates shift to the coast-to-coast, Dixie-to-Dakota battlefield of Feb. 5, Obama is counting on a wave of Democrats experiencing their own McCaskill moments, roused to his banner by the fervent if sometimes vague urgings of youth.
Caroline Kennedy's three teenagers began working on her last year. "They were the first people who made me realize that Barack Obama is the President we need," the daughter of John F. Kennedy told an audience in Washington on Jan. 28. Her decision, joined by her uncle Senator Edward Kennedy, to place her father's mantle on Obama's shoulders was both a boost to Obama and a rebuke to the Clintons.
Frustrated by feckless Washington, energized by the unscripted, pundit-baffling freedom of a wide-open race, young people are voting in numbers rarely seen since the general election of 1972 the first in which the voting age was lowered to 18. Obama is both catalyst and beneficiary. In state after state, he has drawn more young voters than any of his competitors. For a group of voters with no memory of a time before Bushes and Clintons, Obama is a fresh face. His opponents promise to fight, but Obama promises healing. His is the language of possibility, which is the native tongue of the young. And if he happens to be light on details well, what are details but the dull pieces of disassembled dreams? "I had a friend tell me this was impossible, quoting all these political-science statistics at me to show that it's hopeless to try to organize students," says Michelle Stein, 20, media coordinator for Obama's youth campaign in Missouri. "Now he says, 'You were right, I was wrong. Where do I sign up?'"
Combining digital-age technology with old-fashioned shoe leather, the Illinois Senator first rallied Iowa students to cancel Clinton's cakewalk. While enthusiastic Democrats of all ages produced a 90% increase in turnout for the first caucuses, the number of young voters was up half again as much: 135%. The kids preferred Obama over the next-closest competitor by more than 4 to 1. The youngest slice the under-25 set, typically among the most elusive voters in all of politics gave Obama a net gain of some 17,000 votes. He won by just under 20,000.
The excitement that created a "tidal wave," in the words of Bill Clinton nearly drowned the hopes of the former President's wife. But Hillary Clinton answered with her own organizational prowess, whipping up huge numbers of working-class, female and older Democrats. Only the students have kept Obama in contention: in New Hampshire, his edge among young voters was 3 to 1; in Nevada, it was 2 to 1; and in Michigan, nearly 50,000 under-30s voted "Uncommitted" because Clinton's name was the only one on the ballot. In a year of unprecedented levels of participation by Democrats of all ages, Obama is counting on a youthquake that reverberates upward. On the short road remaining to Super Tuesday, the race may come down to this: Will the youthful ranks of Obama's movement grow virally as the election goes national? And will a public long trained to follow youthful trends be swept up in the tide?[an error occurred while processing this directive]