Why Obama? Why now?

Obama supporters hold up four fingers and chant ‘four more years!’ at the John S. Knight Center Wednesday. Photo by Laura Fong.

Rex Santus

Campaign officials are reluctant to talk specifics about why President Barack Obama is visiting Kent State, but politicians and city and county employees have their theories.

Kent State, one of 13 public universities in the swing state of Ohio, stands out for two reasons: It’s a large, public university, and it sits in a city that received $20 million in federal TIGER grants, the first stimulus money of its kind awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“I think that Kent has definitely benefitted from the economic-development policies and the stimulus funding that came from the Obama administration, so I think that factored in,” said Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent). “I also think young people and students are very important to his reelection efforts, so I think it’s a good pairing and is why Kent State is getting a visit.”

Ohio is a battleground state, Clyde said, and students are critically important to the president’s reelection. In 2008, Obama captured the support of the youth vote, and he’s aiming for a repeat this November.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a research group that specializes in youth involvement in politics, conducted a poll in July that found Barack Obama’s support among young people had declined since 2008.

“Overall, the 18- to 29-year-old demographic in our poll was … supportive of Obama,” said Felicia Sullivan, the chief researcher of the poll, “but still, Romney had a greater support among this population than McCain did four years ago.”

When asked if they were “admiring,” “satisfied,” “disappointed” or “angry” with Obama’s performance, 39 percent of respondents said they were “disappointed,” the most-chosen answer.

“I will say that in 2008, the percentage of youth who were eligible to vote, about 51 percent turned out to vote, which was on the high side historically,” Sullivan said. “It’s probably unlikely that youth will turn out at the same high percentage.”

Kent State is the second-largest university in Ohio behind The Ohio State University. There are 27,706 students enrolled at Kent’s main campus.

Portage County Commissioner Maureen Frederick said the combination of Kent’s large student population and the success of federal funding in aiding downtown development is what she believes enticed the president to visit Kent.

“Why wouldn’t anyone want to come to Kent during a campaign or otherwise?” Frederick said. “There’s tremendous success in Kent. I would think it would be a great incentive. He would see living proof of tremendous growth that’s going on in Kent.”

Dan Smith, Kent’s economic development director, also said the downtown revitalization project was likely a major factor in the president’s decision to speak at Kent State.

With this project, Kent State has “set the stage” for all Northeast Ohio development for the “next few decades.” Stimulus money contributing to economic growth in downtown Kent is something the president can use to campaign in Ohio, Smith said.

“The piece that helped the downtown project move forward was a $20 million FTA TIGER grant,” Smith said. “Basically, that created 900 construction jobs over the past 24 months, as well as … [eventually creating 700] permanent, full-time jobs.”

Tim Lowry, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), declined to comment on the issue, saying only campaign officials could comment on Obama’s reasons for visiting Kent.

Two Ohio press secretaries for Obama, Jessica Kershaw and Raymonde Charles, would not name specific reasons for Obama’s visit. Charles said in a written statement that it is important for all Ohioans to hear about the choices of the election.

Obama is the first president to visit Kent since President William Howard Taft in 1912, according to the Record-Courier.

Polly Germer, 40-year Kent resident and volunteer at OFA-Kent, said she’s thrilled about the president’s visit.

“[Federal money] enabled us to … create jobs and really make a difference in our town,” Germer said. “We’re excited to show him where those dollars are.”

Contact Rex Santus at [email protected].