DNC Youth Outreach Not Walking the Walk
by Mike Connery, Thu Oct 25, 2007 at 11:21:14 AM EDT
Cross-posted at Future Majority.
I just finished watching a speech that Howard Dean delivered recently at Johns Hopkins University. In this speech, Dean said all the right things about the youth vote. He noted that Millennials are the largest generation in America - bigger even than the Baby Boom - and the most diverse. That we are turning out in disproportionately high numbers compared to Gen X when they were the youngest generation. The chairman noted that people choose their party affiliation early in life, and talked about the importance of bringing young voters into the Democratic Party.
For a youth vote advocate, the speech was everything I wanted to hear. For a former Deaniac, it reminded me exactly why I supported the Governor in the first place. Yet at the same time, it's disappointing because the DNC is failing to live up to Dean's words. As Ben Adler (formerly of Campus Progress) notes in an excellent article in the Politico:
Still, even if Democrats do reap big youth gains in 2008, it may be unclear how much of this would be due to his DNC efforts, and how much Dean is merely a sympathetic witness to much deeper trends.
DNC spokespeople, citing their need to keep internal strategy private, declined to describe the specifics of the party's youth outreach efforts in any detail, or disclose specific metrics on how well it is working. Surveys make clear that, no matter the impact of political strategies, deep currents are shaping the views of younger voters in ways that seem likely to scramble old electoral coalitions and familiar issue divides.
Adler is more right than he realizes (or is wiling to publish). There are numerous flaws in the DNC's youth outreach strategy, and any gains that Democrats see in the youth vote is more likely due to the work of outside organizations than it is the DNC or its youth arm, the College Democrats.
Operating out of the Political Program at the DNC, the College Democrats are the only vehicle for youth outreach financially and legally bound to the national party. CIRCLE estimates that 75% of 18-24 year olds will never earn a college degree, and a full 55% have no college experience at all. This is to say nothing of the fact that, according to the Current Population Survey only 21% of 18-29 year olds are currently enrolled in college or graduate school. There is very little that the college democrats can do to reach these people, and by extension, that means that the DNC is putting almost no effort into reaching more than half, and possibly as many as 79%, of all young voters.
A quick examination of the organization's accomplishments and resources reveals an organization underfunded and unable to fulfill its mandate.CDA has only two full-time staffers and an operational budget supposedly in the low-hundreds of thousands (the budget fluctuates each year and both the DNC and CDA , but are loathe to talk about actual numbers). The group has approximately $125,000 in the bank that it has raised outside of the unknown amount provided by the DNC. According to Open Secrets the organization spent approximately $210,000 between 2000 and 2004; a number wholly inadequate to the task of reaching young voters.
The hallmark of Dean's tenure as DNC chairman has been the 50 state strategy - the idea that Democrats must have a vibrant party engaging voters in all 50 states if we are to properly challenge the Republicans and build a Democratic majority. Yet were the College Democrats to follow this logic and divide up their assets accordingly, each state would only get between $5 and $10k per year. Not even enough to pay for a local staff person's salary (meaning that most state parties also lack a dedicated youth outreach coordinator.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the CDA budget is dispersed to states who agree to work in cooperation with CDA on youth outreach. Problem is, those resources (money or staff, usually available only at the height of an election cycle) often get shifted away from youth programs and into more general party operations. Some states like Michigan and Arizona have a reputation for working well with CDA and putting real effort into the youth vote, but many others make promises and then take the money for other purposes. There is little accountability in this process, and at the end of the day, no one will say (and it's almost impossible to know) how much of the DNC's youth budget actually gets spent on youth outreach.
At the programmatic level, there is little testing behind what programs CDA does execute, and many of these programs are predetermined by the DNC, not by the membership or even the leadership of the organization.
These are not new problems. In 2002, the Young Democrats left the Democratic Party for precisely these reasons. It was a gamble at the time, and for a time YDA was left without office space or even salary for its officers. Yet it was a gamble that has since paid off in spades, as YDA was able to tap into the venture philanthropy money that overtook Democratic politics in 2003 and 2004, and parlay that injection of resources into building an organization that didn't just work as ground troops for Democratic campaigns, but actually conducted serious outreach to their peers, and continually tests and refines that work. In the last 3 years, YDA has taken huge strides in building healthy, sustainable chapters across the country.
YDA used to be in much the same position CDA is now - perpetually broke and utterly reliant on the DNC and state parties. Now they have total control over their own programs and an average annual budget of $1 million (that tops $1.5 million during Presidential and Midterm election cycles). Despite a number of offers to join with YDA, CDA has repeatedly decided to stay within the DNC - unwilling to give up the guaranteed resources the DNC provides, or part with the insider connections that come from being housed within the DNC.
To be sure, Dean has not just been all talk. There have been modest improvements since he took on the chairmanship. And his words do in fact mean something - they can alter the culture of the organization and create a new conventional wisdom within the party about the importance of young voters. But Adler is right that the DNC can claim little credit for the surge in youth interest and turnout. Part of that is due to the character and beliefs of Millennials themselves, but the dirty job of GOTV and turnout has been the work of organizations outside the party structure who have filled in the gaps where for years the DNC dropped the ball. Should those groups disappear, or the prevailing political winds shift away from the Democrats, Dean and the DNC would find themselves in a very different position with regard to young voters.