"I voted for Barack Abooma!" bragged Davita Randall the other day. One should perhaps forgive the mispronunciation. After all, she and her brother Davin, also an "Abooma" enthusiast, are only in kindergarten.
No, they can't actually vote, but the Randall twins of Elk Grove, Calif., are excited about this election nonetheless. As is first-grader Alex Taylor, who discussed the race animatedly with his mother all the way to their New York City polling station on Super Tuesday — only to see Mom vote another way.
"I voted for Hillary Clinton," said their mother, Sandy Radnovich. "That wasn't his candidate. But I told him, this is what America is all about: free choice."
We already know young voters are showing interest and passion in this 2008 race. What many adults are noticing, though, is that such passion is also infecting much of the too-young-to-vote set, from teens on down, in ways rarely seen before.
And perhaps the Obama campaign should look into getting that pesky voting-age thing changed. Because, maybe not surprisingly, the youthful Illinois senator who's energized enormous crowds of young voters seems to have the affection of the much-younger crowd, too — at least in Democratic households.
"I've noticed a very, very strong interest on the part of supporters of Barack Obama," said school director Elizabeth Bergstein. "One kid's been campaigning for Obama for weeks." And she's really talking young: The students at her Broadway Presbyterian Church Nursery School, just south of Harlem in Manhattan, are three and four.
Kids at her school, she said, "are very engaged in it. Some wear stickers or pins. Or they'll shout, 'Obama!'"
Strawpolls and preschoolers
The preschoolers even held a straw poll on Super Tuesday. No Clinton, no Obama, no John McCain or Mike Huckabee — the contest, meant to introduce kids to the idea of voting, was between SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder. SpongeBob won.
In Alex Taylor's first-grade class in a nearby public school, a poll was taken for real candidates, and Obama won, Alex' mother said. Six students did vote for Clinton, all girls, she said. And if her son was disappointed in his mother's voting choice, well, at least he could identify with Dad, who voted for Obama.
But Clinton supporters can take heart from the carefully chosen words of 13-year-old Eyck Freymann, who is undecided but leaning toward Clinton, although he previously supported John Edwards.
"Edwards was really driving the policy," said Eyck, a confessed political junkie from Manhattan who blogs about current events on his own site, youngsentinel.com, when he's not occupied with eighth-grade matters. "He made universal health care an issue for all the candidates."
He feels this presidential race has attracted "unprecedented interest" from young people. He's also noticed that most kids he knows (admittedly, in liberal Manhattan) support Obama.
"I know kids even from moderate Republican households who are getting up early and handing out stickers for Obama," Eyck said. "I think they see incredible charisma," he explained. "And a man who speaks passionately, and seems authentic."
Yet Eyck himself narrowly prefers Clinton. "Though my instinct tells me Obama is more electable and would unite the country more, my reason tells me that Clinton has stronger plans on a variety of issues, and that her experience would allow her to be a stronger president," he said.
Exit polls have shown that Obama, at 46 the youngest candidate in the race, performs particularly well with voters under 44, while Clinton performs better with older ones. And it's no secret that Obama has drawn rapturous crowds at colleges and universities. Though the pre-voting set doesn't get polled, the campaign seems to know kids like the candidate: There's even a link for them on its Web site.
"Do you feel like you want to get involved in the political process but you don't know how? Get involved in KIDS FOR OBAMA!" the site read. It suggests a "starter kit" of things they'll need to set up an Obama party, including paper and markers for signs, a computer to create a "MyBO" page, and red-white-and-blue balloons and candy. There's also a video of a kickoff "Kids for Obama" party in Illinois.
"It's smart for candidates to be kid friendly," noted Marty Kaplan, a former Democratic speechwriter and now a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications. "Arguably the environmental movement took off because kids convinced their parents to recycle."
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted wryly that it could be the ages of her candidate's daughters, 6 and 9, that "may attract more support from the under-10 crowd than his middle-class tax plan." But, she added in an e-mail to The AP, "kids can sense authenticity, and he is the candidate most committed to changing their futures for the better." Spokesmen for the Clinton and McCain campaigns did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For Carolyn Solomon, the foster mother of twins Davita and Davin, one of the most exciting things about this presidential race is that "it's triggering something" in youngsters. "They are so hyped up and excited about this election," said Solomon, who also runs a daycare center, where she hears kids talk about the campaign.
And though the 6-year-olds spent the drive to the polling station on Super Tuesday chanting, "Barack, Barack," Solomon, 52, said her extended household is good-naturedly split "right down the middle" between the Democratic candidates.
"We all have our reasons," Solomon said. "It's what we feel in our heart." And no matter who becomes the nominee — the first black man, or the first woman — "it's all good," she said. "I want these boys and girls to learn that they can grow up and do something like this."