Folly of Youth or Trove of Votes?

White House contenders reach out for youth vote, despite age of average voter.


June 5, 2007 — -- When it comes to voter mobilization, political candidates and parties have traditionally focused their resources on a sure bet: older voters who reliably show up at the polls time and time again.

But in the lead up to the 2008 election, youth vote organizations are urging presidential campaigns to target the millennial generation -- those 42 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29.

"This generation is huge; it rivals the baby boomer generation in size," said Lindsey Berman, outreach director for Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan grass-roots effort targeting young voters. "The party that realizes this and mobilizes the youth vote will reap the rewards."

Youth vote groups are waging a public relations campaign aimed at '08 candidates, urging them to target young voters.

"Young voters made a major impact in at least a couple of races in the last midterm election," said Kathleen Barr of Young Voter Strategies, a nonpartisan group funded by Pew and George Washington University.

Young Voter Strategies is releasing a report Tuesday titled "Young Voter Mobilization Tactics," suggesting some tight 2006 midterm races were won because political campaigns mobilized young voters in specific ways.

According to the study, Democratic Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney's campaign "energized youth by engaging on relevant issues, from college costs to Iraq."

Winning by only 83 votes, Courtney credited young voters for his election to Congress.

In Minnesota, the Democratic Party's youth coordinator targeted likely young voters by trolling Facebook and MySpace for people whose profiles said they were very liberal to moderate. The campaign then matched the names on its list with campus directories and sent student volunteers dorm to dorm.

"Studies show people are more likely to vote if they hear about a candidate or their platform directly from a peer, someone their own age," said Alex Cutler, director of the 2006 Democratic youth campaign in Minnesota.

The report says the campaign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., attracted young voters with a 10-day bus tour designed to recruit young volunteers and by working with the College Republicans.

"Substantive youth targeting clearly made an impact on some of these races," said Barr of Young Voter Strategies, arguing that if '08 candidates target young people, they could inch out competitors.

Taking heed of that advice, former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., have all hired youth vote coordinators to focus exclusively on mobilizing young voters.

"We are going to run a coordinated, organized effort that really aggressively reaches out to young voters and encourages them to get involved," said Isaac Baker, a spokesman for Clinton's campaign.

As part of her effort to specifically target female voters, Clinton has another staff member zeroing in on mobilizing young women.

"We're going to coordinate those efforts, be it on the Web, be it on college campuses, wherever it's most effective to reach young people, we're going to go there and speak to them about issues that they care about," he said.

Targeting young people, Clinton's campaign sent her supporters cell phone text messages in May with updates about the campaign.

Last month, Clinton also challenged YouTube's young audience to "pick her official campaign song." The gimmick has attracted almost one million views on YouTube's site.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has hired Hans Riemer as his youth vote director. The former political director for Rock the Vote unleashed an army of young supporters across New Hampshire last month to recruit college students and other young voters into his fundraising and get-out-the-vote activities.

The campaign of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., says he is reaching out to young people online, through social networking sites and is talking about issues that matter to young voters.

"Helping students afford college, and his plan for universal health care are two things he talks about nearly everywhere he goes," said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the John Edwards campaign.

On the Republican side, former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has created a "students for Mitt" strategy, which pays college students a 10 percent commission for every $1,000 each student raises for his campaign.

The campaign of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is also considering hiring a youth vote coordinator, according to youth vote advocates.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the oldest Republican candidate in the race, is relying on his webmaster to target his message on MySpace and Facebook.

Youth vote groups are planning to launch a new, coordinated campaign to register young people to vote.

Rock the Vote's Lindsey Berman said the new campaign would advertise on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the popular video-sharing site YouTube, creating links from those sites to voter registration Web sites.

Rock the Vote and student-run efforts have tried to get young people mobilized to vote for years, using celebrities, MTV and tapping into college networks.

Despite the coordinated efforts of youth vote groups, turnout rates among young people have been consistently low.

In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, young voters between the ages of 18 to 29 represented only 17 percent of the electorate, according to ABC News exit polls.

In the 2006 midterm election, young voters, ages 18 to 29, voted for Democrats by a huge 60-38 percent margin, compared with 55-45 percent in 2004; it was the best showing for the Democrats since 1986.

However, young people represented only 12 percent of the electorate in House races in 2006.

Many people blame young people for being politically apathetic. Others say the transient nature of being a student makes it difficult for young people to reliably show up at the polls.

However, youth vote groups blame politicians.

"Frankly, it's because the candidates don't spend the money or the time engaging young people," said Dave Rosenfeld, national program director of the Student Public Interest Research Groups.

His group is planning a major voter registration drive on almost 300 college campuses in 25 states beginning in the fall.

Rosenfeld argues that the current crop of presidential candidates needs to do more to engage young voters.

"They need to devote not just one youth organizer but a cadre of organizers in the same way they do for older voters," he said."They need to talk about the issues young people care about and talk directly to young people on college campuses and workplaces with a lot of young people."

Rosenfeld has organized a campaign called "What's Your Plan?" in which student volunteers go to fundraisers, dinners and speeches and ask the 2008 candidates what their plan is for college affordability, global warming and the economy.

Youth vote organizers argue that the candidate who can tap into the youth vote will gain an unmistakable edge over the competition.

"Young people right now are just way more engaged than they've ever been," said Heather Smith, director of Young Voter Strategies, a nonpartisan voter mobilization advocacy group financed by the Pew Research Center and based at George Washington University.

"They're quite angry about things like the war, and they're very worried about the economy and getting a job and affording health care," said Smith.

Many presidential candidates argue they are talking about issues that matter to young people throughout the campaign.

However, scholars who study voter turnout say it isn't mass media appeals by candidates that drive voter turnout.

Young people are much more likely to register and vote if they hear about a candidate from a friend or a peer.

"The more personal the connection, the better," said Yale University professor Don Green, who, along with Yale University professor Alan Gerber, has conducted several highly regarded studies on successful voter turnout techniques.

Some organizers have argued that MySpace, Facebook and YouTube allow young people to communicate with one another about issues and the campaigns in an unprecedented way.

But Green said recent studies suggest that while the new digital media sites may spur interest among engaged young people, they will have little effect on turnout among the millions of young people who simply don't vote.

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