The '08 Vote: Teaching Generation X Why

Brian Goldsmith is an Associate Producer for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.
Whatever the trends—whatever the year—some political laws never change. When your opponent attacks, always respond. Fail to project "family values" at your own peril. And, if nothing else works, make protecting Social Security and Medicare the centerpiece of your campaign—because old people vote, and young people don't.

But like a lot of conventional wisdom, that last point isn't entirely true. While seniors still vote at a higher rate, there were actually more voters under 30 in 2004 than over 65—the biggest spike in youth turnout since 1972, when 18 to 20 year olds first got the right to vote. This should be a transformational statistic for political candidates—and it was the subject of a conference last Friday at Harvard's Institute of Politics (IOP).

"Most campaign professionals are unaware of the impact of young voters. We need to spread the news to everybody involved in the process that it's incredibly important to reach out to this group," IOP Director and former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen told me.

And so the IOP brought together top researchers and strategists to discuss why more young people voted, how they affected campaign outcomes, and what candidates can do to energize Generations X and Y.

Three "drivers" were responsible for the bump in turnout—opposition to the war, anxiety about the economy (particularly about finding good jobs), and the resources that campaigns targeted to young voters.

The youth vote—the only age group Democrats won in 2004—not only kept the presidential election close for John Kerry, it also provided the margin of victory for Democrats in 2006. Exit polling shows that without voters under 30, Republican Senators George Allen of Virginia, and Conrad Burns of Montana, would have been re-elected, and the Senate would have remained Republican.

The message to Democratic and Republican partisans: every time you see Majority Leader Harry Reid on TV, you have young people either to thank or to curse.

In interviews with 59 campaign managers last year, the IOP found that two-thirds did not even know what percentage of the electorate youth voters represent—let alone how to reach them. Only about a dozen of the 59 identified young people as a "priority demographic." Yet youth-friendly campaigns were far more likely to be winning campaigns.

And that was the message of the conference: don't appeal to young people because it's the nice thing to do—appeal to young people because it's the smart thing to do in order to win.

And how do you reach a generation more likely to use cell phones than land lines, more likely to get their news online than in print—and increasingly likely to use TiVo and skip TV ads? IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe said the most successful 2006 campaigns had three things in common:

First, they integrated youth into their campaign staffs. Their headquarters were close to college campuses. Internship programs were productive and well-planned. Young people were represented at the highest levels of campaign decision-making.

Second, the campaigns ceded some control, particularly in "new media" formats. When candidates blogged on the campaign website, their strategists allowed critical responses to be posted—and earned credibility as a result. Candidates spoke to hip-hop radio stations and student groups—and answered tough questions. The most successful candidates recognized that young voters have amazing authenticity detectors—and didn't pretend, even in non-traditional settings, to be different than they actually are.

Third, campaigns used new technologies as well as traditional grassroots organizing. They designed "personalized" webpages—in which people could create their own campaign ads, get voter call lists, collect donations, and feel more invested in the campaign. They effectively used online video and text messaging to communicate with targeted voters. They created profiles on popular networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to organize events and volunteers and voter registration drives. They produced podcasts and online video for unfiltered (and inexpensive) dialogue between their candidate and the electorate.

And they recognized that, amazing as these tools are, they are simply a means of—and not a substitute for—communicating a compelling campaign message.

Voting is a habit—research shows that after people vote twice in a row, they will probably continue to vote the rest of their lives. And the party for which they vote becomes a habit as well. Only 60% of young people identify as either traditional Democrats or Republicans; both parties have an opportunity to win the rising generation.

The Institute of Politics—founded by the Kennedy family to show more young people the importance of politics—is now at work on another mission: showing more politicians the importance of young people.