The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Government Majors Reflect on Their First Presidential Election

Wed, January 21, 2009

As Election Day neared last November, questions loomed over voter turnout. Many anticipated record turnout levels, and especially an influx of first-time voters, handing a decisive edge to Barack Obama. Was voter turnout especially unique in 2008, and did voters joining the electorate for the first time swing the election to Obama?

The answer is mixed. As Government Professor Daron Shaw tells it, “the ‘new voter’ story is important, but has typically been incoherently rendered.” Shaw reports that the national exit poll revealed zero difference in the number of first-time voters in 2004 and 2008. In 2008, 11% of respondents to the national exit poll said they were first-time voters. In 2004, the number was … 11%.

In fact, turnout and voter registration figures from the Texas Secretary of State record a steady decrease in the percent of Texas’ voting age population registered to vote. The figure was about 85% in 2000, 82% in 2004, and 77% in 2008. However, turnout among registered voters in Texas has increased, from about 52% in 2000, to 57% in 2004, to 60% in 2008.

“More people voted overall in 2008, to be sure, but first-time voters did not flood to the polls last November,” said Shaw. “What’s more interesting is how they voted. In 2008, Obama won first-time voters 69% to 30%; in 2004, Kerry won these voters 53% to 46%. This 16-point swing among roughly 10% of the electorate was worth an extra 1.6 points in the national margin.”

So, while first-time voters did not have quite as decisive an impact as many may have anticipated, they did make their presence felt. Most notably, first-time voters voted overwhelmingly for Obama. First-time voters also made their presence felt by campaigning for the first time, and by using the latest technology available to political campaigns. This is the clear story that emerges from narratives provided by UT-Austin Government majors describing their participation in the 2008 Election.

Derin Kiykioglu is a freshman who was active with the Young Democrats in her high school and wanted to continue her involvement with the University Democrats when she arrived in Austin. Derin joined the University Democrats and began using the internet website to make campaign phone calls.

“I brought my laptop to a meeting, downloaded Skype, was given a headset to plug into my laptop, and signed in to under a username provided by UDems. The Texasvan site provided a script of things to say and questions to ask. Each page on the site had a person’s name, their precinct, and their phone number. I was able to simply click on the phone number listed and Skype would connect me.”

Brian Arbour is an assistant professor of government at John Jay College, City University of New York. Arbour received his Ph.D. from the Department of Government at UT-Austin in 2007. His research focuses on political communication and campaign strategy. Commenting on the use of Skype in political campaigns, Arbour points to the transformative effects of cost-reducing technology. “Think of how technology has changed the cost of long-distance calling. Cell phones have greatly reduced the cost of long distance calls, and with Skype, the internet can be used to reduce the cost further, by calling on the internet.

“Just like any other business, political campaigns have adapted to changes in technology,” he said. “Just a few short years ago, the cost of volunteers in Austin dialing voters in Columbus, or Gainesville, or Charlottesville was prohibitive. As a result, campaigns would only ask local volunteers to call local voters. Today, the low cost of long-distance calling means that UT students are just as valuable to a campaign in Ohio, Florida, or Virginia as students at Ohio State, the University of Florida, or the University of Virginia.”

With the help of another internet resource employed by the UT Democrats – the popular website, Facebook – Vanessa Villa voted absentee while studying in Spain last semester. “UTDems on Facebook had a link for those students studying abroad, so I followed the link and my roommate and I printed out applications for Texas.” Vanessa mailed the application to her home district in Houston and it took one-and-a-half weeks for the absentee ballot to arrive in Spain: “We were scared the ballot would not reach us in time, but it did.”

Studying abroad gave Vanessa an opportunity to view the election from an international perspective and “hear the opinions of foreigners and what this election meant to them.” This helped shape her view of the election as “a chance for rekindling the dialogue between the United States and the European Union.”

Another student studying abroad also sees implications for America’s international relations. M. Hanna Cihal, a senior on exchange in Sydney, Australia, watched the election results come in on a big-screen television set up in Martin Place, a pedestrian mall in Sydney’s central business district. “I was very surprised by the level of attention Australians gave to the American election. I was able to watch the results as they came in on a large screen set up in the middle of the city specifically for the occasion, and everyone I came across wanted to share my joy in Obama’s victory. I can already feel the change in opinion toward America,” she said. M. Hanna used the Federal Voter’s Assistance Program website,, to request an absentee ballot, which she received in Sydney and mailed to her local voting office.

Back in Austin, Justin Stein, a Government/Plan II Honors major from Houston, interned at the Obama for America Texas headquarters, where he worked with campaign staff members for eight weeks. Justin worked primarily with the Out-of-State Travel Coordinator, contacting prospective volunteers who had expressed interest in traveling to New Mexico, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado for up to five weeks to campaign for Mr. Obama. He organized and participated in phone banks, and was also responsible for inputting, organizing, and assessing data that were presented to campaign headquarters in Chicago.

While studying overseas exposed Vanessa and M. Hanna to the diversity of thought and opinion that comes with traveling abroad, Justin was struck by the diversity he encountered close to home. “Even among Obama’s supporters, the diversity of background and opinion was astounding, and something that surprised me during my work at the campaign,” he said. Justin was equally struck, however, by how this diversity was overshadowed by the common desire to elect Barack Obama.

“I realize now that Professor Tasha Philpot’s course, “Race, Politics, and the Media,” made me more sensitive to differences in voters’ beliefs and personal circumstances,” Justin said. “And yet, despite all of these differences, people united for this common cause, and, in the portion of the campaign that I was involved in, took weeks out of their lives to travel the country in support of Obama.”

First-time voters often expressed a sense that participating in the election gave them a feeling of belonging to a larger community that transcended the individuals involved. Marilyn Lopez recalled her Election Day experience as follows: “I waited patiently for two hours at the Dan Ruiz Public Library in Precinct 429. My best friend and I woke up at 7 a.m. assuming that we would be some of the first people in line, but we were wrong. The line reached the entrance doors. Nobody seemed rushed or hurried to cast their vote and leave. Instead, there was this underlying sense of pride and respect for every individual that took the time to show up. At that moment, I felt as if we were all united.”

Marilyn, a junior, dedicated herself to Rick Noriega’s U.S. Senate campaign. She participated in block walks in Houston’s East End (disseminating information to the public about the November elections), helped produce campaign billboards, performed data entry and fundraising tasks at campaign headquarters, and helped organize promotional events in smaller towns outside of Houston.

Other first-time voters also expressed a sense of fulfillment and value in simply participating, regardless of who they supported, or who won the election. Francis A. Cruz recently declared Government his major after his introductory Government courses inspired him to begin participating in the political process. Last semester, he began passing out ‘VOTE’ stickers on the West Mall, “in an attempt to push the idea that no matter whom for, students should take the time to vote,” he said. “Being involved has been amazing. From seeing the political groups on the West Mall, seeing the Democratic Party debate on campus, and getting involved myself, it has all been thrilling … knowing we helped shape history.”

Jacklyn Allgayer also expressed a heightened level of excitement surrounding the election. “I couldn’t help but be swept up in all the political commotion,” she said. “The energy it caused in most of us was unprecedented.”

 Zaid Hassan (L), Marilyn Lopez (C) and Wendilyn Ilund  (R)

Zaid Hassan (L), Marilyn Lopez (C) and Wendilyn Ilund (R)

Specific issues, concerns, and beliefs drove other first-time voters to participate in the 2008 Election. Debate over university students without permanent legal status in the United States drove Jose Torres Don to campaign on behalf of Barack Obama. “There was a meeting held at UT during the primaries that focused on Obama’s platform in regards to Latino issues,” Jose said. “I attended this meeting, and this was the point at which I decided to get more involved.”

Jose began block-walking in East Austin during the primaries, handing out literature and posting yard signs; he also phone-banked with the University Democrats throughout the fall semester. “As a student at UT, I have come across many talented students whose dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, engineers, and lawyers are on standstill because of their immigration status. For these students, I block-walked and phone-banked,” he said.

Andrea Gutierrez also gained a lot of experience block-walking and phone-banking. Andrea began working in early September as a Watson Fellow for the Travis County Democratic Party. She said that a course she took on social policy last semester, taught by Dr. Andrew Karch, helped deepen her understanding of the issues that many of the voters she spoke to were grappling with, but that the actual work she did and the organization of the campaign were things she had never done or seen before.

Andrea walked door-to-door in East Austin twice every week. She also made phone calls and collected data, such as which presidential candidate people would be voting for, what political issues were most important to them, and whether people needed vote-by-mail forms. “My favorite constituents to talk to were always the senior citizens,” Andrea said, “because they were capable of keeping me on the phone up to 20 minutes talking about why they wanted to vote for Obama, or how they too had worked for numerous campaigns when then were younger. I especially enjoyed talking to people well into their 90s and early 100s, because they were the most eager to vote or tell me their story.”

Andrea walks away from the campaign feeling she has given a lot, but gained more. “Despite the long days of hard work and the Saturdays that I gave up to the campaign, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the people at the Party and the hundreds of volunteers. My campaign experience has opened many doors to me, and has taught me the importance of the community in government. This semester I will be working with my Senator as an intern, which will hopefully give me insight into what comes after the election process.”

Although this was the first time participating in a presidential election for many students, first-time voters felt the sense that something was ‘different’ about this election. Wendilyn Ilund heard Barack Obama speak at The Backyard, an Austin live music venue, in November 2007. “I was amazed at how thoughtful, yet rousing he was as he spoke. His presence was very calming, and I fully supported him after that occasion,” she said. Even so, Wendilyn was expecting the election to be an unenthused, media-driven ‘horse race’, a picture of American presidential elections that has been painted over the years. That was not her reality, however. “The election was different than I expected it to be. Many people were involved and passionate – it was much more exhilarating than I expected it to be.”

This sense of exhilaration was common. Ben Holland said: “It is not the election of the first African-American president or the fact that we have changed presidents for the first time since September 11 that I will remember the most. Rather, it is the feeling I had waiting in a line that stretched out of the door, two weeks before the election, as every individual eagerly awaited their turn to participate.”

"One of the interesting things to see in the next few years is whether the enthusiasm that we saw among young people during Obama's campaign translates into greater interest in politics generally, or whether the 2008 election is just a 'one-hit wonder’," said Danny Hayes, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.

"If the campaign encourages a generation of college students to pay more attention to politics, then that's significant, and something that I think most of us would say is good for democracy," added Hayes, who received his Ph.D. from the UT-Austin Department of Government in 2006.

As is evident by the tales of campaign activity told here, participating is not exclusive to voting. Few know this better than Zaid Hassan, a Pakistani national with a strong American identity who refused to let citizenship keep him from participating in the election. “2008 allowed me to take pride in not only being a Pakistani, but also to completely reclaim my absolute pride in being an American,” Zaid said. “I am not a citizen of the United States, and cannot and did not vote. But I volunteered for hours and made sure that those who could vote did vote,” he said.

Zaid continued: “I became an Obama fan ever since his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004. In this election, the implausible odds, the discipline, idealism, symbolism, and message of change and hope all made it a priceless experience and an absolute privilege to be a part of the process. If nothing else, the election has reaffirmed my faith in the political process, the United States of America, and engaging in the highest of human callings – government.”

Story compiled by Stuart Tendler. An e-mail was sent to the Department’s mailing list of Government majors asking about students’ participation in the election. The responses received are those we have reported.

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