Case Studies in Young Voter Mobilization
by Mike Connery, Fri Jun 08, 2007 at 08:05:44 AM EDT
Youth turnout is trending up. At this point, I hope that is a given. When we talk about those turnout numbers, frequently they are discussed in the context of national turnout or Presidential elections. But what does it mean at the local level? How does this play out in a Senate or House race? What about gubernatorial bids and state legislative races?
In last year's midterms, 58 federal elections, and 80 state level races were decided by easily surmountable or razor thing margins. Breaking those numbers down, five U.S. Senate and three gubernatorial races were decided by less than 50,000 votes; 35 House races by less than 10,000 votes and 18 by less than 5,000 votes; and 77 state legislative races were decided by fewer than 100 votes.
In almost all of these races, the margin of victory was less than the turnout increase among young voters in that state.
A combination of three factors drove the increase in turnout: highly competitive races, in which the potential value of a single vote is recognized by formerly disenchanted young voters; non-partisan voter registration efforts aimed at youth; and partisan outreach to young voters by campaigns. Two of these factors are outside the control of a candidate and his/her campaign. But the third is something we can study and replicate to help drive progressive youth turnout and increase our majorities in 2008.
A new report by Young Voter Strategies provides a road map to do just that. The report features a series of case studies on how campaigns- Democrats AND Republicans - reached out to young voters to create victory in '06. Below the jump I've pulled out and summarized some of the more interesting case studies, and noted some best practices that have emerged - some of which are smack on the head obvious (but still aren't utilized by most campaigns), and others which go against conventional wisdom. This is required reading for all Democratic campaign staffers.
A brief caveat: In the case studies below, the numbers are based on exit polling and vote tallies. Census data is not yet available. Also, I've assumed that new young voter partisanship breaks down in the same proportion as the total youth turnout partisanship. This is an assumption, and I also think - from the progressive standpoint - it's a worse case scenario. My instinct says that if a campaign did strong youth outreach, partisanship among young voters probably would break more heavily in their favor. As this was a wave election where young voters overall picked Democrats almost 2-1, I think it's probably safe to assume that new voters were more likely to vote Democrat. So what I'm saying here is that a lot of the partisanship numbers below might be low-balled, and I may be underestimating the impact of young voters on these races.
- Joe Courtney (CT-02): With a young staff, and the knowledge that increased turnout at UConn alone could swing the election in this rural district, the campaign spent the spring registering new voters. In the fall, they worked in conjunction with the College Democrats - who were working on multiple local races - to register, persuade, and GOTV young voters. Courtney himself often visited campus, where he discussed Iraq and college affordability.
Off campus, the campaign made sure to keep young voters on their call and walk lists (most campaigns cut young voters from these lists to "save precious time and resources," an unfortunate practice left over from the days of Gen-X apathy), and the campaign held events in high schools. In the end, this investment paid off. Turnout was up by 74% at the UConn polling place alone (783 votes). Courtney squeaked into office by 83 votes. It was the closest congressional race in the country in 2006.
- Jon Tester - MT: Jon Tester owes his seat to young voters. In 2006, young Montanans increased their share of the electorate from 8% to 17%. 39,106 new young voters participated in the midterms.
With same day registration in Montana, and a 10 point polling advantage over his opponent, Tester made an early decision to target young voters, and the campaign conducted on the ground peer outreach both on and off campus.
He joined with three existing organizations - the Montana Coordinated Campaign, Big Sky Democrats, and Forward Montana, all of whom performed on the ground, peer to peer outreach on and off campus.The campaign also made a point to register as well as GOTV young voters. Nothing was off the table. The campaign used MySpace to coordinate and draw supporters to events, and incorporated phone and internet outreach into their GOTV operations, focusing particularly on the urban areas of Bozeman and Missoula. All of this was in addition to the work of three existing organizations: the Montana Coordinated Campaign, Big Sky Democrats, and Forward Montana all of whom targeted young voters. In the end, the youth vote split 56%-44% Democratic, giving Tester an advantage of at least 4,692 votes among new young voters. That's over 1,000 more voters than the margin of victory (3,562).
- James Webb - VA: Webb won his seat over George "Macaca" Allen by 9,329 votes. Incredibly, youth vote turnout was up over 110,000 votes in Virginia over 2002 levels. The 18-29 bracket broke 52% in Webb's favor, providing at least half of Webb's margin of victory. If young voters turnout had flatlined, we'd probably all be watching George Allen cream the Republican primary field.
In this one instance I find the YVS case studies somewhat lacking, as it makes no mention of YouTube. Webb focused on campus outreach and invested a decent amount into FaceBook and MySpace outreach, but the real story in the Virginia race was the YouTube/Macaca incident, which energized young voters and cause Allen's poll numbers to drop precipitously among 18-29 year olds. As has been documented before, the Webb campaign worked hard to make that video go viral.
- Charlie Crist - FL: Yup, a Republican. Young voters didn't make the difference for Crist, as he won by over 100,000 votes, but I wanted to include this as something of a cautionary tale. Crist performed solid youth vote outreach. He organized at colleges and spoke about higher education costs, jobs, and affordable housing. Apparently he also rocked FaceBook, with some unscientific polls suggesting a 64-36 advantage over his opponent Jim Davis. While nationally young voters broke Democrat by almost a 2-1 margin, Crist actually captured the youth vote in Florida, winning 50% to Davis's 49%.
All of this is to reinforce point #15 from the 95 Theses I posted last week. The youth vote is trending Democratic nationally, but we've still got to work for it, especially locally in these close races and in purple states. Here's how:
- Meet Young Voters Where They Are: On campus, in high schools, at local hotspots like coffee shops, clubs, community centers or online at sites like FaceBook. Hold your events and do your canvassing and outreach at the places where young voters already hang out. (My personal favorite example of this was the Governator, who created a bus tour that canvassed the state and made a point to stop at Motocross events.)
- Hire Paid Staff to Coordinate Youth Outreach: Frequently campaigns decide to ignore youth altogether, or take the craps shoot approach - designate outreach to volunteers in the hopes that maybe something will happen. This is a mistake. The best results will come only if campaigns dedicate resources to youth outreach. Volunteers need to be managed, and experience counts, especially on a larger campaign.
- Make Your Issues Relevant: Young voters care about the same things that older voters do - Iraq, Health Care, Education - but we care about it from a different perspective. You can't recycle your stump speech from another event, you've got to tackle these issues from our perspective if you want to be relevant.
- Work with Existing Groups & the Party: The youth vote by nature is a moving target. Work with existing groups that have already forged local connections. These groups probably have mobilization capacity and lists that could be a huge boon to your campaign.
- Build Your Own List: Canvass and call your existing list early to clean it up for GOTV come October and November. Running voter registration during the campaign can help with this, as well as brin in new voters and potential volunteers (so remember to ask for cell phone numbers and email addresses for everyone you register). One campaign in Minnesota found FaceBook to be an invaluable tool in building and cleaning their young voter lists.
- Use Social Networks to Educate and Energize: Campaigns had a variety of successes with these tools, particularly that Minnesota campaign which used it to list build, and the Tester campaign, which used SocNets for volunteer recruitment and announcements. Overall, though, campaigns found that while this was an excellent tactic to energize and engage supporters, it didn't really bring new people into the campaign or help sway undecided voters. For that, grassroots, peer to peer contacts on the ground still remained the best tactic.
I don't know how seriously we can take the lukewarm data about new online tools, particularly social networks. It's not that I doubt the findings, I merely doubt their relevance a year from now. So much is changing so rapidly in that realm - particularly with the opening up of the FaceBook platform, that I think all bets are off. As I've said before, I've got high hopes that the utility of these tools will improve far beyond their current capabilities. I'll also reiterate that SocNet campaign tactics should be one of the most studied tactics of the '08 election by groups like CIRCLE and Young Voter Strategies.
One item that didn't get much notice in the study at all was Text Messaging. Those who know me know that I'm a big skeptic of the utility of Text Messaging as an electoral campaign tool. I've not yet seen anything particularly appealing or creative done with text messaging by political campaigns, who mostly use it to spam those unfortunate enough to make their way onto the list. The most prominent examples frequently cited by pro-text advocates are usually advocacy campaigns or, more frequently, organic uprisings disconnected from any formal or "official" campaign effort (distributed organizing like text messaging at protests; anti-candidate/censorship ringtones, etc), and most of them come from foreign countries where cell phone habits and technology are different from here in the US. I don't doubt that the vision preached on sites like Personal Democracy Forum and the New Politics Institute will come to pass, but I think it we'll have to wait for today's tweens and teens to fully enter the electorate before that happens.
In any event, there's a lot here about reliable ways to reach young voters, and I think the excuse that "young voters are hard to reach" can be laid to rest just as much as the old "young voters don't turnout" meme. Millennials can be the voting block that tips close elections in 2008, and as I've said before, we're the base of any future progressive majority. Now we've got some blueprints on how to build that majority.