Friday, May 18, 2007

Youth Voting

To: Interested Parties
From: Fako & Associates, Inc.
Re: Youth Voting

Harvard University's Institute of Politics (IOP) was established in 1966 as a memorial to President John Kennedy and has engaging young people in politics and public service as its mission. I attended a conference at the IOP in March 2007 to discuss the preliminary findings of the Institute's youth survey and to listen to top campaign managers and consultants discuss their successful tactics for engaging the youth vote.

I have compiled notes from the conference and a few other sources related to youth voting in this report and have added my own commentary, as a campaign professional in the field of political polling, to elaborate on the topics covered by the various speakers at the conference.

Understanding the Youth Voter

At least half of all young people under the age of 24 do not have access to a land line telephone. In the polling industry, we have come to accept that it is difficult to reach the 18-24 year demographic with traditional RDD or voter file driven surveys. Traditional surveys average about 5% or less of this demographic. It is unfeasible to weight such a small sample. The current way to discover what young voters think and believe is to conduct surveys online, and even this method has its perils.

It’s important to realize that the youth vote is about new voters. Young voters who where 18 in November of 2004 are going to be 22 in 2008, but those who were 14 in 2004 are going to be 18 in 2008. Progressive Policy Institute's "Trade Fact of the Week" highlighted that the youngest voters in the next presidential election were born a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall; turned three as the World Wide Web went public in 1993; entered elementary school as the dot-com bubble took off; watched the 9/11 attacks at age 11; and the beginning of the Iraqi occupation at 13.

The institute's pollster, John Della Volpe, discussed the four pillars of political socialization for youth voters (families, school, churches or religious communities and friends) and how the breakdown of two pillars has created a vacuum of non-voters and concentrated the importance of the remaining pillars. According to Della Volpe, leading up to the 2004 election, a majority of America's young people, up until the age of 18, lived in homes in which no parent present in that home had ever voted. The family transfer habit of voting has broken down. He continued by discussing how schools are not teaching about civics because of two waves, first, after Vietnam, it was seen as a form of propaganda and second, with the emphasis on testing in the 1980s and 1990s, it was squeezed out.

Without the family transfer habit of voting and the teaching of civics, that leaves churches, communities and friends. While churches were the go to location when describing GOP strategy in the media during the 2004 cycle, the Institute's study revealed that ideology drives only a rough 25% of young people. They refer to them as “religious centrist” and determined them to also be “Swing Voters.” Demographically they tend to be more African American and Hispanic, conservative on some issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, while more liberal on other issues.

Approval of the United Nations is sometimes used in polling to gauge the philosophical outlook of voters. According to the survey's findings, youth voters, by a measure of three to one, believe the U.N. and other countries, and not the U.S., ought to take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts. This is an important view into the lives and the world view of young people and may help explain why Kerry did so well among the youth demographic in 2004. As we shall see, issues related to the Iraqi occupation and the war in general are the top concern (at 43%) of young voters.

Top Dozen Issue Concerns among All Youth Voters ([1])

Percent (%)



War (General)




Environment / Global Warming


Foreign Policy


War on Terror / Terrorism


Health Care








Poverty / Welfare Issues


Domestic Security


According to Della Volpe, despite the difficulties inherent in reaching and messaging to youth voters, in 2004 there were more votes cast among young people under 30 than seniors over 65. Seniors are typically the first demographic group that campaigns target, but by about a million, there were more votes cast between voters between the ages of 18 and 29 than over 65. We have been speaking about a highly engaged, presidential election. What about state-level and local elections on off-year elections?

Campaign Tactics to Engage the Youth Vote

Campaigns, especially down-ballot and local campaigns are not in the business of promoting the long-term viability of democracy. Youth voters are new voters and more expensive to contact than any other group. The majority of youth voters come from households without strong voting histories. How do campaigns decipher what young voters care about and how to get them involved without breaking the budget or burning campaign time?

Della Volpe suggested bringing your candidate to Starbucks, or some other places where the youth vote meets, and find out firsthand what these voters are concerned about. Depending on the campaign’s location, this could be feasible, but unlikely to be the best use of campaign resources and candidate time in finding out what young voters care about. Other campaign professionals suggested finding out what the youth voters are concerned about through youth staff.

Several panelists suggested using technology to bring youth people into the campaign, but not simply relegating them to canvassing, phone banking and youth coordinator positions. Campaign managers like Greg McNeilly, who ran the DeVos gubernatorial campaign in Michigan, suggested placing some young people in leadership rolls, such as community chairs. McNeilly said this tactic has a significant impact on other young people, seeing their peers in leadership rolls and dramatically helped the campaign to recruit other young people.

Location-based volunteer recruitment is also an important factor. A couple of the successful campaigns actually located their offices near college campuses so students could walk over or have a very short drive to volunteer. This makes a difference in the ability campaigns had to attract volunteers to come send e-mails, make calls or lick envelopes.

Campaigns in college areas organized students to do “dorm storms” where they would do massive amounts of voter registration. Again, the youth vote is about new voters. Many young people come from families without a transferred habit of voting. College students move frequently, even during the timeframe of an election, so voter registration or petitioning is accompanied by e-mail and cell-phone gathering. Some campaigns created detachable contact information forms on their petitions.

Summer interns shouldn’t be forgotten just because they went back to school in the fall. Some campaigns had a specific way to keep those people involved, keep them talking to their friends, keep them sending emails. Organizing and simple campaign functions don’t need to stop just because someone isn’t physically able to get to the campaign office.

Cutting-edge campaigns are riding the open source movement in politics. “Macaca Gate” opened the eyes of campaign professionals to the distributed power structure of the internet. Anyone with a cell phone camera or a WIFI enabled laptop can change the dynamics of a campaign. People are now capable of participating in campaign dialogues like never before. User generated videos, text messages, social networks, blog, vlogs and their comments and virtual precinct captains are dramatically changing the brick and mortar mentality of political campaigning.

Virtual precinct captains are a vital source for any campaign, but especially lower budget campaigns. Serving the roll of a traditional precinct captain, someone interested in working for the campaign can get trained and download all the materials they need to start organizing their precinct without ever having stepped foot in a campaign office. This is an ideal approach for getting young people involved because of the low hurdles associated with communicating over the internet.

Some campaigns found that text messaging was most successful in giving people action alerts, participate in radio call-ins, online surveys, and checking out something uploaded to their website. Turnout for regional events can be bolstered by SMSing supporters by zip code. As technology progresses, campaigns can send a Get Out the Vote streaming video message to video enabled phones. Campaigns can even fundraise via SMS, but currently are limited to contributions under ten dollars. As time progresses the cost of setting up such a system will decrease and the contribution amounts will rise.

Along with open source campaigning, campaigns need to learn to give up some (but not all) control and let people have some autonomy. Some campaigners allowed individuals to set up their own fund raising sites for the campaign and set up their own pro-candidate sites, created their own videos, and develop their own social networks for the campaign. This sort of organic campaigning is becoming ever more prevalent with fundraising sites like ActBlue and social network (Web 2.0) communities like Myspace and Facebook. Anyone can set up a blog on a service like Blogger and start fundraising in less than a half hour.

Technology can only go so far. Face to face contact is the most persuasive element of campaigning, regardless of the demographic. A 2001 study found that youth to youth canvassing, direct contact, knocking on their doors, increases impact eight to ten percent, the phone bank three to five percent, versus a targeted mailing to youth which had a neutral impact.

Down ballot campaigns don’t need to be technology aficionados, they just have to do better with the youth vote than their opponent. Get the youth in the office and involved, creed them some control, especially with new media, to be creative and give them the tools to build your campaign.

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