DENVER — Barack Obama rode a young-voter revolution to his party's presidential nomination, and you can see evidence of that at the Democratic National Convention. What's unclear is whether he can maintain his appeal among the young and convert it into votes in November.
From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of party delegates younger than 36 nearly doubled, from 9 percent to 16 percent, according to Jane Kleeb of Young Voter PAC, which supports Democratic candidates who reach out to young voters.
Obama won the Democratic nomination on the backs of these young Americans, and he hopes to do the same against Republican rival John McCain this fall.
According to a Harvard University Institute of Politics poll, Obama has maintained a 23-point leader over McCain this summer among likely voters ages 18 to 24. That's substantially higher than the 9-point advantage that Democratic nominee John Kerry earned in his 2004 loss to President Bush.
Obama's ability to inspire and turn out these voters in the primary season is well documented.
"Because he's younger and represents change, people are involved for the first time," said Rick Herron, 18, a convention volunteer from Dresden, Tenn.
At the same time, history suggests that it's difficult for presidential candidates to convert youthful support into Election Day results, and there are indications that the tug and pull of this long campaign already is eroding Obama's appeal among the young.
When she was asked about her feelings toward Sen. Joe Biden as the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee, one 19-year-old voter, who didn't wish to be identified, responded with a wrinkled nose, "I think he's the same old white man."
Meadow Spisak, 24, a graduate student from Denver, also expressed concern about Biden. "The few things that I have learned, it sounds like he's said some things that may be offensive, and that makes me a little hesitant as to why he chose him as his VP," she said. But Spisak added, "I'm behind Obama, so by default I guess I'm behind Biden, too."
This year's youth movement isn't entirely new. The 2004 presidential elections and 2006 midterm elections experienced significant spikes in young voter participation, and they may have laid the foundation for Obama's young-voter surge.
"I was a college freshman that campaigned for Kerry by handing out yard signs for a total of about 20 minutes," said Matt Herrick, 22, of Los Gatos, Calif. This year, he's a member of the convention staff and a passionate Obama supporter.
Herrick said that part of Obama's appeal to the young was his embodiment of social mobility. "He came from a single-parent home, was raised partly by his grandparents and has become a leader," he said. "He is a symbol of the break from the Bush dynasty and silver-spoon politics. It's empowering."
Herron said the Obama campaign's leadership in new technology also was a factor in his draw among the young. "Obama has really managed to reach out to the right mediums, for example the text (message) for the VP choice," he said.
(Cherry, a senior at SUNY Binghamton in New York, and Robertson, a senior at the University of Missouri, are McClatchy interns at the Democratic National Convention.)