In any conversation about the role of young voters in the political process, there are a number of arguments that - without fail - creep into the discussion. Once these myths enter the debate, any further discussion is usually rendered moot and the majority of participants tend to side with the person propagating those myths and against youth advocates. It's sort of a reverse Godwin's Law for the youth vote. It would almost be funny if it didn't have dire consequences for our movement and the Democratic Party.
So today I'd like to try to dispel some of those myths in the interest of encouraging a more hopeful (and fact-based) discussion during the rest of the month here at Passing Through.
Myth 1 - The youth never turn out. This is false. Young voters will turn out if you ask them, the problem is that the Democratic Party stopped asking a long time ago. Celebrities and media campaigns won't cut it. "Asking" requires real, peer to peer field work - the same type of work that campaigns use to target older voters. In 1992, Rock the Vote ran that field component and youth turned out for Bill Clinton. In 1996 and 2000, there was no similar field effort and youth turnout declined.
Beginning in 2004, outside organizations emerged who have taken on the responsibility of coordinating such field campaigns and we've seen the results. The youth vote has turned out in greater numbers in the last three election cycles and is growing greater with every year. In 2004, 4.3 million more young voters (18 - 29) went to the polls than in 2000. Turnout rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In swing states that were targeted by youth organizers, turnout was 17 percent higher than in non-targeted states. Young voters were also the only age demographic to choose John Kerry over George Bush. In 2006, youth turnout rose during a midterm election for the first time in over 20 years. According to the latest research by Rock the Vote, youth turnout participation in the primaries has doubled since 2004.
Fact: Youth will turnout if you engage them and dedicate real campaign resources.
Myth 2 - The youth vote never won an election. In the 2006 midterm elections, young voters chose Democrats over Republicans 60 - 38 percent, and three Democratic candidates in particular owe their election to young voters. In Montana, Jon Tester ran a very YouTube-centric campaign that made an effort to reach out to young voters. He was aided by the field work of Forward Montana, an effective local youth organization, the Minnesota Youth Coordinated Campaign, which targeted young voters, and newly implemented Election Day registration, which can boost youth turnout by 10 - 14 percent. Young voters increased their share of the electorate from 9 percent in 2002 to 17 percent and Tester squeaked in by a few thousand votes.
In Virginia, Jim Webb had a similar story to tell. The campaign used social networks to reach out to young voters, and had the mother of all viral videos - George Allen's "macaca moment." After Allen's on-camera gaffe, youth opinion swung dramatically in Webb's favor. Peer to peer efforts in the state by YDA in 2005 also likely boosted youth turnout which increased from 9 to 12 percent of the electorate - more than Webb's margin of victory.
And of course, we can't neglect the elephant in the room.has just sewn up the Democratic Party nomination and engaging young voters was a vital part of his strategy. Even more, Obama bet his entire campaign on youth-turnout in Iowa and that "gamble" paid off big. Young voters in Iowa outperformed their share of the voting population and voted in equal numbers to the "reliable senior" demographic. Without young voters and without that Iowa win, Barack Obama would not be the Democratic nominee.
Fact: Young voters won some key races in 2006 and helped flip the Senate into Democratic hands. Young voters are now responsible for nominating the first African-American presidential candidate in US history. Young voters can win elections and have done so frequently in the last 5 years.
Myth 3 - People grow more conservative as they get older. This is not strictly a myth about young voters, but it's one of those arguments that always creep their way into the debate when young voters are the topic of discussion. The fact is though that it's just not true. Partisanship is a habit that forms early in life and is hard to break. If a person votes for a certain party in their first three major elections (during the youth vote years), 66 percent will always identify with that party and 56 percent will never cross party lines.
Fact: Youth outreach is important because partisanship rarely changes. We need to hook people while they are young.
Why is all this important? Because it is these fundamental misperceptions that continue to blind people to the power and importance of the youth vote and sustained young voter outreach. If a person believes these myths, it's very easy to dismiss the youth vote and rationalize a lack of youth outreach on the part of a campaign or political party. The Millennial generation - today's young voters - are the largest generation in American history. Bigger even than the Baby Boomers. As they age into the electorate, they will be the bedrock of a future progressive majority - in Congress, in state houses, and in the White House. But only if we engage them in the process with respect.
By Michael Connery
Reprinted with permission from The Nation