Students for Obama still drumming up votes

Francesca Jarosz

When Barack Obama, Illinois’ Democratic contender for the U.S. Senate, delivered a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention this past July, it was a proud moment for Northwestern student Emily Koches.

“I just remember feeling … almost like it was my son up there,” said Koches, a Weinberg sophomore.

That’s because months before Obama received national recognition, Koches and about 59 other NU students promoted the candidate through the grassroots group Students for Obama.

Some of Obama’s student supporters said his chances of winning are even stronger after former Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan dropped out of the race in late June. Ryan was replaced by Alan Keyes in early August.

“(Keyes) is not going to appeal as much to Illinois voters, even Illinois Republicans,” said Matthew Yalowitz, a Weinberg sophomore and one of Students for Obama’s founders. “First of all, (Keyes’) opinions are really far right. Second of all, he’s not even from Illinois; he’s from Maryland.”

But Students for Obama members aren’t taking anything for granted.

This fall they’re helping the Associated Student Government register student voters.

Their registration effort doesn’t stray from the goal behind last year’s campaign: getting NU students involved in politics.

Yalowitz, along with Medill junior Christopher Kriva and Madhuri Kommareddi, Weinberg ’04, formed the group last October.

All three were interns at Obama’s Chicago office, then a small operation for the underdog candidate.

“He was third in the polls,” Yalowitz said. “We didn’t really think anything was going to happen.”

That didn’t stop them from making sure NU students and local residents learned more about Obama. By Winter Quarter, group membership had grown to 60 students.

Along with promoting their candidate, members encouraged students to vote in the primaries. With the help of the Cook County Board of Elections, they compiled a list of NU’s registered voters. On the morning of the primaries, they assisted with voting at campus polls. In the afternoon, they called students on the list to remind them to vote.

Their efforts seem to have paid off. Combined voter turnout in two precincts in which many students reside increased from 159 in the 2002 primary to 272 in 2004, and Obama won the seven-person race with 60.9 percent of Cook County’s vote.

“Northwestern students sometimes have a reputation for being (politically) apathetic,” Yalowitz said. “We worked to disprove that reputation by what our group did on Election Day.”

Students for Obama members attribute the increased voter turnout to their candidate.

“His original campaign message is a chance to believe again,” said Tyler Jaeckel, a Weinberg junior who sports Obama’s name on his backpack, water bottle, fleece jacket, marathon jersey and resume — he also worked for him as an intern. “I think that’s a chance to believe in ourselves again — that we can do better than we’re doing now.”

Kriva said Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war and support for lower college tuition also earns him support among some students.

“People come up to me and talk about Barack Obama at parties,” he said, citing evidence of that support.

Reach Francesca Jarosz at [email protected]