Reaching Out Early for the Youth Vote

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Student supporters wave signs for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Even in a presidential campaign that has started as early as this one, Heather Smith couldn't have expected she would already be so busy. But "my phone started ringing the day after midterms and it hasn't stopped ringing since," says Smith, 30, the executive director of Young Voter Strategies (YVS). Her non-partisan organization, which she founded after the 2004 election with funding help from Pew and George Washington University, analyzes how to best mobilize young voters. That section of the electorate has traditionally been treated as an afterthought until weeks before the actual voting. But this time around top presidential contenders and political strategists are starting to focus early on the youth vote.

Smith has almost a decade of experience with grassroots organizing and with young voters in particular. Prior to starting YVS, she worked as the national field director for the Student PIRGs New Voters Project, a nonpartisan group that launched in 2003 and has since registered 600,000 young adults to vote. Since November, she and her team of five have met with the campaign staffs of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Smith has also given presentations to the Democratic and Republican national committees and leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate. Because her organization is nonpartisan and nonprofit, Smith cannot actually consult for or advise political candidates. But she can tell them what works — and what doesn't.

To determine what actually gets young people to vote, Smith and her staff rely on data compiled by several academic teams. Chris Mann, who worked on a team at Yale, likened the data-collecting process to a clinical trial for a new drug. "In a clinical trial, one group gets the medication and one group gets the placebo," he says. "We're using the same research design, only [instead] of medication we're using phone calls, direct mail, canvassing and other means of contacting young people to get them to vote." The results are then compared to the "placebo" group, who get no targeting.

Surprisingly, Facebook and MySpace are not proving as effective as their popularity with politicians might suggest. "New technology is certainly helpful in communicating with younger voters, but it shouldn't be the only means of targeting them," Smith says. Her research shows, in fact, that the same tried-and-true retail politics that works with Iowa retirees — knocking on doors and face-to-face contact — is the most effective way of getting young adults to actually vote for a specific candidate. Also key, not surprisingly, is talking about issues that are most relevant to young adults — namely the Iraq war, college affordability and health care.

Smith's tips could be more important than ever in 2008. After more than a decade of declining or stagnating numbers, turnout among voters under age 30 increased by almost 5 million in 2004 and almost 2 million in 2006. Voting experts say this is because a new generation has come of age — the Millienials — and they are more civically engaged young adults than so-called GenXers were during the 1990s. The Millenial Generation — those born between 1979 and 1994 — is also three times the size of Generation X. They've voted Democratic in the last two elections and according to a New York Times/CBS News/MTV poll released in late June, they plan to again in 2008. That poll found that 54% of voters under age 30 say they intend to vote Democratic. But 40% of young adults ages 18 to 24 describe themselves as Independents, according to an April poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics. Because of that, Smith says Republicans could still win the youth vote in 2008.

So far, however, Democratic presidential frontrunners have been better at reaching out to young people. The Clinton, Obama and Edwards campaigns have all hired youth vote coordinators to focus on organization among students and young professionals. Obama hired Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to oversee the campaign's social networking sites, while Hillary Clinton is using YouTube to reach its young audience — most recently by allowing them to select her campaign song, Celine Dion's "You and I." John Edwards continues to run his One Corps, a community service organization comprised mainly of young adults.

Such youth outreach this early on in an election season is unprecedented by Democrats, says Alexandra Acker, executive director of Young Democrats of America. Acker served as the youth outreach coordinator for John Kerry in 2004, but she wasn't brought on staff until after the primaries. "The biggest difference this election cycle is that all of the Democratic candidates now have a personal commitment to young voters, she says. "We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in 2004, and that was leaps and bounds ahead of 2000."

On the Republican side, neither McCain nor Giuliani have hired youth vote coordinators, though Giuiliani does employ the same Republican pollster that Smith's team has used. A spokesman for McCain emphasized the campaign's presence on Facebook and MySpace. Mitt Romney's campaign has not met with Smith, says a campaign spokesman, because he already learned how to do successful youth vote outreach as Massachusetts . Recently Romney announced a "Students for Mitt" program in which college students receive a 10% commission for every $1,000 they raise for the campaign.

"The youth vote is not a hard sell to Republicans," says David Norcross, a former RNC counsel who has been pressing the youth vote to Republican leaders in Washington. Norcross sits on the board of George Washington University, which partially funds Smith's organization. After he learned that Republicans were in danger of losing young voters, Norcross connected Smith with GOP leadership, who "have been very receptive to the need to reach young voters," he says.

But then again, so are the Democrats. Adds Norcross, "Nobody in either party thinks that the youth vote is not worth paying serious attention to and spending money on programs to get them registered and turned out."