President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is recruiting big names to speak at college campuses to re-energize the student base that played an integral role in the 2008 election.
Actor Josh Hartnett, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — who’s also vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee — and the Obama campaign’s National Field Director Jeremy Bird spoke to nearly 250 students at McNamara Alumni Center for the Greater Together Student Summit on Saturday.
The summit is part of the Obama campaign’s strategy to get students involved in the campaign on college campuses. The event included speakers and a forum for students to ask about issues that affect them.
The summit tour has been to several colleges across the country, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa.
Obama won with 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 in 2008, but a December 2011 poll from Harvard University showed that Obama’s approval rating among 18 to 29 year olds dropped 12 percentage points to 46 percent over the past two years.
The visit also comes on the heels of Rick Santorum’s exit from the race for the Republican nomination, making it almost certain that Obama will face Mitt Romney in November.
“Obama has a clear record of helping the youth in the last four years, and I think that will speak volumes,” Hartnett said. “I think what [Obama] stands for suits younger people more than the other guys. I think people will be really turned off by Romney, and it will energize people.”
Despite the campaign’s focus on young adults, Nick Amell of the University of Minnesota’s College Republicans said Obama’s policies haven’t created enough jobs — a top concern for students coming out of college.
“I can’t speak for all students, but for conservatives, his pushing of health care reform and job-killing legislation has not sat well with us trying to find jobs,” he said.
Hartnett, who has been absent from the campaign trail since campaigning for John Kerry in 2004, said he was eager to volunteer and help out the president when the campaign called.
Hartnett, a Minnesota native, said he originally became involved in politics when the late Sen. Paul Wellstone spoke on campus before his death in 2002. He’s been interested in the political system ever since.
“There’s a fear, I think, that politics is untouchable and that we don’t have an involvement in politics,” Hartnett said.
During the last election cycle, companies in the entertainment industry donated about $9.2 million to Obama and $1.2 million to Sen. John McCain, according to OpenSecrets.org. The Obama campaign has recruited other stars such as actors America Ferrera and Kal Penn to speak at other Greater Together Student Summits. Penn has also worked on the campaign as a liaison to Asian-Americans.
Although the entertainment industry tends to support Democrats more openly, Amell said celebrities often campaign for Republicans too. He said this can be a useful campaign strategy.
“My opinion is basically, if it’s effective in generating a large group of people rallied around an idea or candidate, then it’s effective in campaigning,” Amell said.
Bryan Martin, a freshman at Macalester College and student volunteer for Obama, said bringing celebrities out may help bring back student enthusiasm.
“I think for some people, seeing a big face like Josh Hartnett or another celebrity getting involved may inspire some people to come out and get more involved in the campaign,” Martin said.
Not all students in attendance were drawn to the celebrity speakers.
Melate Tibebe, a political science sophomore at the University, said the celebrity speaker wasn’t why she attended the event.
“I still don’t know who [Josh Hartnett] is,” Tibebe said. “The younger demographic is not usually motivated, so it’s good to have events where students can express their views.”
Attendees included students from Macalester, Augsburg College, Carleton College, Hamline University, St. Olaf College and other University of Minnesota campuses
The event began with a video laying out all of Obama’s accomplishments in his first term but also highlighting some aspects of the president that could appeal to younger voters, including playing basketball, dancing with Ellen DeGeneres and singing at a campaign event.
The campaign also encouraged students to use different social media outlets to connect their friends to the campaign and rally support.
Rybak said these events are important in regaining the youth support and engaging young people.
“We’re getting people fired up here, and they’re going back to their campuses and getting more people fired up,” Rybak said.
Bird, the campaign field director, said the president’s accomplishments reveal his passion for students and younger voters.
“I think there’s no question that the president’s policies are in line with the success of young people here today and the future they want to have — look at everything from health care to the policies we’ve put on the economy,” Bird said.
“I think when you look at the policy differences between the president and Mitt Romney, I think we have a huge advantage with young people because we’re on the right side.”
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