Campaigns Must Do More Than Use MySpace and MTV to Capture Young Voters

Jane Fleming Kleeb is the Executive Director of the Young Voter Pac which helps Democratic candidates and State Parties win with the 18-35 year old vote through endorsements, on-the-ground support, training, strategy and money.

The 2008 Presidential cycle is here and candidates are increasingly competing for the youth vote. Rightfully so, young people voted in record numbers in the 2004 and 2006 elections and all signs point to 2008 being even bigger for the youth vote. It is not just hype or hope that young voters can swing an election; young people have proved they are voting at higher numbers and are now voting overwhelmingly for Democrats.

The question is what is it going to take to continue to get young people to the polls?

Recently, MTV and MySpace launched a new type of online discussion with candidates which will in theory reach young people in order to get them motivated to vote. Edwards is up first and his campaign thus far is doing exactly what they need to in order to capture the youth vote. They have a separate website for young voters, created an action arm with their One America and even John Edwards himself is on message when it comes to young voters when he said today "You hear all the time from political pundits that young people don’t care about politics – but it’s a lie. Young people all over the country care about America and are engaged in bringing change to their communities."

Too many campaigns get sidetracked and think there is a magic tactic or umbrella issue for capturing the youth vote. Right now that magic tactic seems to be new media tools including Facebook, MySpace, blog posts, text messages and online debates. None of these new media tools alone will get young people to the polls. Rather, what it takes to secure the youth vote is, interestingly enough, to treat them as serious constituents and target them as voters. It is not who is the most hip with the coolest MySpace page.

Young people are a sophisticated voting bloc and we now have the experience, research and best practices to know what works to turn them out to the polls. Most encouraging for Democratic campaigns, young people are now voting in record numbers, and favoring Democratic candidates by wide margins. In 2004, for example, young people preferred Democrats by a 10% point margin; by 2006 that margin had grown to an impressive 22% points.

Even better news, young people are not only voting for Democrats, for the first time in several years they are also identifying as Democrats. Just a few years ago, young people were split evenly among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Now, 43% of young people as saying they are Democrats, only 31% Republican and a shrinking 26% of young people are saying they are Independents.

Now, while it is true that young people, ages 18-35, do not yet vote at the same levels as older voters, we have found that it is not because they are lazy or apathetic. The real reason is much simpler—for years, most campaigns have ignored them as voters and in turn young people ignored voting. Instead, most young people turned to community service as a way to be involved in their communities and nation. The voting booth was simply not seen as a place to effect change and campaigns were not doing anything to change that mindset.

As with any constituency group, campaigns must contact young people at their doors and where they hangout if they want to engage them as voters. Campaigns should continue to use new media approaches such as participating in the MTV online dialogue. However, research and recent history both tell us that these tools alone will not actually get young people to the polls. Such techniques may excite or inform them about a given candidate but they will not, by themselves, secure the youth voting bloc necessary to win unless campaigns also engage them personally at their homes and hangouts.

In 2006 some successful youth voting outreach examples included Representative Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, Representative Harry Mitchell of Arizona and Senator John Tester of Montana. These campaigns had field plans that included young people, utilized new media outreach to broadcast their message, and partnered with youth groups who had experience in turning out young voters. And, as those campaigns testify, that increased voter turnout among young people was the margin in their victories.

While capturing the youth vote is not easy, it is doable if candidates target young voters, listen to them, talk with them about issues they care about and treat them like any other constituency group they are trying to secure in order to help them win. When campaigns do this, when they treat young people as voters in messaging and outreach both, young people reward their effort with their time, money and votes.

This is cross posted at