Clinton-Obama contest engages Hawaii youths
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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Amanda Silliman is exactly the kind of voter Hawai'i Democrats desire.
She is young, thoughtful and interested enough about politics to want to go to the party's caucuses Tuesday night.
"For me, I guess it's the environment and the war," Silliman, a student at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu, said of the issues that motivate her.
Last year, when local Democrats started organizing, they thought the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York might help recruit more young people and independents.
But the unexpected national attention on the caucuses, driven by the close contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, has brought hundreds of young people and independents to the party and has also engaged others who consider themselves Democrats but are not usually active.
"People are fired up," said Kari Luna, a teacher on Maui who is volunteering for Obama. "There is something that just hits home for them. We have this terrible war in Iraq going on right now and we have someone, finally, that is able to bring people to the table to talk about the issues that other presidents and other leaders aren't able to do or aren't willing to do to put aside their differences to end the war."
State Rep. Ryan Yamane, D-37th (Waipahu, Mililani), who represents a swing district with many independent and potential crossover voters, said Obama's local ties and Clinton's experience have led to the interest. "We know that there is a close relationship with these two candidates and Hawai'i that we haven't seen before," he said.
Yamane, who has endorsed Clinton, said he hopes the competition between local volunteers remains positive for the party. "What I'm hoping is the two campaigns, because it is a fight for the nomination, that the two campaigns don't get caught up with the negativity with each other and even with the Republican nominee.
"Hawai'i is a small place, and I think it's different, the whole sense of aloha," Yamane said. "I'm hoping things remain about looking at the attributes rather than the weaknesses."
Caucus turnout has never exceeded more than 5,000 people, and political analysts believe that substantially higher turnout on Tuesday would benefit Obama. The Hawai'i-born senator appears more popular with young people and independents who would likely be new caucus-goers, while Clinton has done better among more traditional Democrats. A push by U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and the Hawai'i Government Employees Association to get more traditional Democrats to the caucuses could help Clinton compete in the presidential preference poll.
Exit polls in California and Nevada, two states that have some similarities with Hawai'i, show positives for both candidates.
Clinton, who took the California primary on Super Tuesday, split the youth vote with Obama and won among people who described themselves as Democrats. Obama won among independents.
In Nevada, where Clinton won the caucuses in January, Obama did well with young voters and won among independents. Clinton won among Democrats.
Youth voting nationally, which peaked in 1972 after the voting age was lowered to 18 but has been disappointing for a generation, bumped up in 2004 and 2006 and has been strong in caucuses and primaries this year.
"There's sort of this feeling, we can't really put a finger on it, but we know there is something going on," said Karlo Marcelo, research associate at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. "There's really something sweeping, sort of this current moving along, that this generation is really interested in participating in politics."
Young people are engaged on issues such as the war in Iraq, the economy and the environment, but also because of the emergence of the Internet as both a source of information and social networking.
"What it has really helped to do is create more volume and more depth of information and transparency about candidates and about the election process." Marcelo said.
Chelsea Clinton, Clinton's daughter, encouraged students during a question-and-answer session at UH-West O'ahu on Friday to take advantage of the information available online. "I think one of the things that's so distinctive about this election is how much we as voters, we as caucus-goers — in this instance — can hear from the candidates directly without the filter of the people on the left or the right of me," she said of the news media covering the event.
Silliman, who lives in Kapolei and was at the UH-West O'ahu session, said hearing from the former first daughter had an influence on her and that she would probably vote for Clinton. But she said she knows other young people who seem to be favoring Obama. "It might seem because a lot of people are going for Obama, it might be like a group effect," she said.
OPINIONS ON BOTH
Jon Scarpelli, who is studying microbiology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and lives in Kapolei, said he thinks Obama would do more to help college students and has a better position against the war in Iraq. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 for the vote to authorize the possible use of military force in Iraq but has said he would have voted against it. Clinton voted to authorize military force but has been critical of the Bush administration's planning of the war and its aftermath. Both Obama and Clinton would begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as president.
"I think he wants to pull out of Iraq, so that would be good, so we would have more money to spend elsewhere," Scarpelli said. "It seems like she just changed for politics."
Ryan Engle, an attorney who lives in 'Aina Haina, said he has been an independent but is leaning toward the Democrats. He plans to participate in the caucuses for the first time. "I think I'm going to vote for Obama. Frankly, while I think Hillary probably knows the issues better than an anybody else — is more of a policy wonk — I just think that she is too divisive. I don't think she can win," he said.
"I think it's too important of an election to have Hillary up there. She is probably one of the most polarizing figures in the last 20 years of American politics. I think, especially after Bush, that leadership and somebody who can unify the country are the most important factors right now."
Joanne Agnes, who works in human resources and lives in Salt Lake, said she usually votes Republican but plans to go to the caucuses. She has not chosen a candidate. "I guess, right now, there are a lot of things at stake," she said. "For me, it's basically Iraq and are we really going to get out? And the economy.
"It didn't dawn on me until last week that I had to do something. I know the election isn't until November, but this is a chance for me to make a choice right now about who I want to be there."
Reach Derrick DePledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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