Framing of the Youth Vote (or Lack Thereof) In November

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Well, here we go again.

The New York Times published a story today out of Colorado looking at whether or not young voters could be turning away from the Democratic ranks — two years after serving as one of the bedrock groups in Obama’s voting coalition. The story seems to be fairly balanced in its views, as there are some younger voters proclaiming their continued allegiance to the President and the Democratic Party, but there are also young voters souring on the Democratic leadership.

One young voter was particularly descriptive in explaining her conflicted views.

Kristin Johnson, 23, like many other students interviewed here in recent days, said that a vote for Democrats in 2008, however passionate it was, did not a Democrat make. But she bristles just as much at the idea of being called a Republican.

“It’s like picking a team when you really don’t want to root for either team,” said Ms. Johnson, a communication studies major, who said she was undecided about parties and politics going into the general election campaign.

If Democrats are letting voters like Ms. Johnson get away from them across the country, the ramifications of this blunder will be felt for a long, long time. But that’s another topic for another day.

I wanted to focus on another passage from the article, one that reflects exactly what we have been facing throughout the last few special elections and what we will be fighting back through November and beyond.

How and whether millions of college students vote will help determine if Republicans win enough seats to retake the House or Senate, overturning the balance of power on Capitol Hill, and with it, Mr. Obama’s agenda. If students tune out and stay home it will also carry a profound message for American society about a generation that seemed so ready, so recently, to grab national politics by the lapels and shake.

While Kirk Johnson, the writer of this piece, does not go into specifics as far as what he means by a “profound message,” I think the odds are good that these few lines illuminate the common misunderstanding that Johnson and other journalists run with when writing these stories. They go with the surface level content, mindlessly reporting that youth did not show up at the polls and, thus, are not interested in voting. Apparently, we’re just not prepared.

But what about the other possibility: perhaps youth, suckered into this idea that politicians – maybe just once – might care about our issues, might be willing to talk big, think big, dream big, and for once exercise some pragmatic idealism, are let down. After being counted on to move this Democratic administration and congressional leadership into power, perhaps we are pissed off and making a political statement by refusing to be taken for granted.

That’s where this article falls short. There are other possibilities for why youth might not be voting. Not because we are apathetic, or turned off to politics. It’s because politicians gave us their word, we gave them our vote, and aside from a watered down health care bill, a stimulus that was too small, and maybe a few other bills, the work hasn’t been done, and the to-do list is getting longer. Furthermore, we are left hanging in the breeze, waiting for an honest explanation… still.. waiting.. for that honest explanation.

So don’t get us wrong: we’re still ready to shake some lapels. But in order to be most effective, we need candidates who are uncompromising in their tenacity on confronting big issues, but flexible in crafting solutions to our problems. And we need them to engage us.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[…]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Re-Attracting Young Voters Back to the Obama Coalition

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Matt Bai’s piece in the New York Times Magazine chronicles the emerging tensions between the White House and the Congress as they strategize for the 2010 mid-terms. Within the piece, Bai discusses the generational dynamic at play as the DNC (what is now the Obama-backed OFA) is pushing congressional candidates (against their wills) to make their pitches to voters normally perceived as unreliable.

…The lesson that Plouffe and his operation took away from the dismal 2009 elections is that Obama can act like a matchmaker of sorts, introducing the party’s candidates to new voters and vouching for their intentions, but it’s only going to matter if the candidates themselves embrace the so-called new politics. What that means, practically speaking, is that the White House is urging candidates to divert a fair amount of their time and money — traditionally used for buying TV ads and rallying core constituencies — to courting volunteers and voters who haven’t generally been reliable Democrats.

This is not what members of Congress or their campaign managers are trained to do, and it has created something of a cultural chasm between the White House and the party apparatus. There is a strong generational component here. With some exceptions, Obama’s passion for organizing finds more enthusiasm among candidates closer to the president’s age and newer to politics (candidates like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado), while older Democrats have a harder time imagining that a bunch of volunteers and a dozen virtual town-hall meetings are going to matter more than labor endorsements and some killer 30-second spots…

[…]

By Democratic Party standards, this is a relatively muted internal disagreement. But it nonetheless points to the emergence of rival schools of thought within the party when it comes to Obama’s importance as a party leader. Some see him as having transformed both the electorate and the nature of campaigning in what could be a lasting and fundamental way, meaning that things are possible now — both in terms of liberal governance and winning elections — that did not seem possible before. Others view 2008 mostly as a cathartic election that had more to do with conditions in the country than with Obama’s peculiar magic, and they don’t think the party should assume that there are millions of new voters out there who can be tapped if you just knock on the right doors. These two worldviews coexist uneasily among the party’s elected officials and candidates, young and old, in every part of the country — sometimes just hours apart.

The congressional camp within the Democratic Party reflects the status quo that continues to claim that new voters — including young voters — don’t vote and are apathetic. What they refuse to understand is that we are civically active; we do vote when we are genuinely engaged in a conversation about issues through a medium relevant to our lifestyles. These labor endorsements and “killer” television ads are almost as boring as network news these days. Instead, we should be investing in the peer-to-peer voting drives and organizing work that have already increased the youth vote for three straight elections. From Mike Connery’s Journalist Cheat Sheet:

Tip #5: If you insist on reporting the same old story that young people vote at a lower rate than the rest of the electorate, then you have an obligation to also inform your readers/viewers/listeners that youth turnout has increased for 3 years straight, and is at its highest level in over a decade. You also have an obligation to note that in 2006 the youth vote swung a number of important federal races, including pushing Democratic candidates Jon Tester, Jim Webb, and Joe Courtney over the top.

Source: Historical voting patterns (pdf), Impact on Races (pdf), Midterm Turnout (pdf).

Tip #6: If you are going to report on low-turnout among young voters, you also have an obligation to note that young people face more barriers to voting than do older voters. We move more frequently, requiring us to re-register sometimes on a yearly basis, on campus we face a lack of voting machines and long lines, and many university towns actively discourage and try to prevent students from voting.

Source: League of Conservation Voters Education Fund

Tip #7: There are simple fixes to the problems outlined in #6 – election day and same-day registration and mail-in voting are two such fixes that can be applied at the state level. These have been proven to bump youth turnout by as much as 14%!!!!! It would be nice if you reported on them occasionally.

Source: CIRCLE

Tip #8: Young voters will participate if they are asked to, particularly by a peer. This is proven. But the system stopped asking long ago by removing resources and manpower away from young voter outreach. Only in recent years have organizations – and a few campaigns – begin to reengage young voters in any serious way. The result is three straight years in which youth turnout increased. In plain terms: young voters are not apathetic. Rather, the system fails to engage them in any meaningful way.

Source: Young Voter Strategies, Voter Mobilization Tactics

Tip #9: Stop reporting on “celebrity activism” as the Rosetta Stone for understanding the youth vote. This is a Boomer and Gen-X construction created for a broadcast TV culture of the 80s and 90s. Today’s young voters are interested in peer-to-peer communication and networked action. From Facebook to on the ground, peer to peer organizing at club, bars, barbershops and apartment canvassing, the most effective, and sustainable developments in youth organizing in the past five years have come from new, grassroots organizations doing peer to peer organizing on the ground or online. Stop reporting on celebrities and start doing the work of talking to and reporting on the activities of these organizations. Good places to start include:

Forward Montana, The Oregon Bus Project, New Era Colorado, Young Democrats of America, and The League of Young Voters.

There are many more, but let’s do this in baby steps. Start with these and we’ll work out way deeper into youth organizing together.

Young voters can be courted; it just takes some courage and genuine effort. The Speaker’s office and legislators like Congressman George Miller (D-CA) have been great on youth policy issues, but in purely electoral terms, the Congressional campaign plan outlined above is disappointing. While OFA doesn’t have a pristine record with young voters, they apparently get it more than many of the old guard congressmen and congresswomen.

McCain and GOP Blind to Upcoming Political Realities

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How does one know when a politician isn’t up with the times? I suspect there are a number of devices that get to this metric, but one might be looking for someone harping about the nation being “center-right.”

John McCain, of 2008 “Country First” fame, appeared with Sarah Palin the other day to speak to a crowd of Tea Partiers. While Palin continued to gloss over the constant references to violent acts in her exhortations to Tea Partiers over the past couple days, McCain railed against health insurance reform, vowing a repeal of the newly-passed law.

When McCain spoke, he responded to President Obama’s speech yesterday, in which Obama defied Republicans to campaign on a platform of repealing the health care reform law, in light of the various benefits included within it. “And my attitude is, ‘Go for it,'” Obama said.

McCain declared: “We’re gonna ‘go for it,’ an we’re gonna repeal this bill. We’re gonna stop this spending.”

McCain also said: “Our answer is, yes, we’re gonna ‘go for it,’ and we’re gonna get it, and we’re gonna restore the government back to the people of this country, because this is a right-of-center nation, and this president is governing from the left, and it will not stand.”

When I finish reading that, the question that immediately pops into my head is… “What happens if it does stand?” What happens if people like this health insurance reform, given that a majority of Americans had already liked the bill’s individual previsions or believed they weren’t liberal enough? What happens if the world does not end? More broadly, what happens when the entirety of the nation’s most diverse generation ever comes of age and is largely politically active, expressing its left-leaning viewpoints?

I think this all comes back to many members of the GOP and the conservative fringe being unable to zoom out and view these events over the long-term. We saw this with McCain himself in his poorly-run campaign in 2008 — the difference between tactics and strategy. Yes, Obama faced some trouble with the Rev. Wright controversy, but he gave a forward-looking and eloquent speech that muted much of the criticism. Yes, the McCain campaign was enjoying success in its portrayal of Obama as a celebrity political novice that summer, but because it wasn’t rooted in anything, the McCain camp apparently didn’t think anything of choosing a mayor with frighteningly little experience as their vice presidential nominee. Yes, health insurance reform has had its troubles, and while the GOP was responsible for many of those Democratic struggles, their refusal to do anything other than saying no left them without any input whatsoever. And now, there’s this call for repeal, a move to take away all the benefits given to 32 million people. A conscious choice to choose the student loan industry over young Americans.

As the GOP leans more to the right, its rhetoric closer and closer to a boiling point, it will increasingly place itself in untenable political positions. The GOP chooses to live in the moment, ignoring the political realities around the corner. Contrary to John McCain’s wishes/statements, this is no longer a center-right nation. As the Millennials come of age politically, their size and pro-government/socially liberal positions will tip the country to the left, a la the 1930s.

So, again John — what happens if it does stand? What’s the contingency plan?

Young Americans Not Excited to Vote in Midterms

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In what is some bad news for the Democratic candidates in November’s midterm elections, young people simply aren’t that excited to vote.

According to Gallup daily tracking poll data from March 1 – March 7, 18-29 year olds were the age group with the highest lack of enthusiasm toward voting, with 44 percent of respondents noting that they were “not enthusiastic” about voting in 2010.

One potential problem for Democrats is the lower enthusiasm about voting among young Americans. Twenty percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 say they are very enthusiastic about voting this November. That compares with 31% to 39% of older age groups who are very enthusiastic.

Younger Americans are decidedly more Democratic than the national average. Thus, their apparent lack of motivation to vote — if it continues until Election Day — could deprive Democrats of the full benefit they could in theory derive if all 18- to 29-year-olds were to vote.

Democrats need to knock this number down quickly if they want to have anything resembling success this November. One way of doing that would be to pass comprehensive health care reform legislation. Young people want to see their politics made up of officeholders who are strong, problem-solving leaders, instead of weak, timid politicians.

While David Plouffe and Barack Obama drew praise with his outside-the-box approach in the 2008 election, including the amazing mobilization of thousands of new young voters, 2010 will be a different story for Democrats across the country unless something significantly changes. While it is only March, this is still very disappointing.

Youth Voter Participation in 2010

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This week Chris Bowers over at Open Left predicts that the voters upon which Barack Obama depended in 2008, a large bloc being young voters, will fail to turn out this November. Bowers grounds his argument in what he calls “long-term civic trends” that show “drop-off voters” participating in presidential elections and failing to go to the polls just two years later. Bowers contends that the importance of young voters to Obama’s coalition will exacerbate this situation come Election Day, as youth consistently form a smaller share of the vote in midterm elections compared to presidential elections (for information on “share” versus “turnout,” please read the first bullet point here). Thus, Bowers calls for a strategy of persuasion as opposed to mobilization.

I disagree with Bowers. In covering youth political participation, one quickly identifies the chicken-egg nature of the topic. Politicians and parties believe youth cannot and will not be politically engaged, so many of the ads, phone calls, and messages are tailored to older voters, alienating the youth demographic. When youth do not turn out after politicians largely ignore them, the media, pundits, parties, and candidates express disappointment in young voters for failing to engage. Thus, youth naturally view electoral politics with cynicism.

In unquestionably consuming the line that youth won’t turn out without unearthing why this might be, we perpetuate the cycle. In a tough political environment thus far, with 435 House races this November and over 30 Senate campaigns, it’s going to be easy this cycle for timid and weak Democratic incumbents and their consultants to stick their fingers in their mouths, hold them out in front of them, and avoid making tough decisions. And with the GOP disgusting young voters, Republicans have little incentive to target youth. Accepting this as inevitability is what gets us to this situation in the first place, because it doesn’t shine the light on the ineffectiveness of this stale strategy. The result is an electorate that’s older, more moralistic, and polarized. Boomer-like ideological strength is at the heart of midterms, not Millennial problem solving. Thus, I heartily disagree with Bowers’ resigned argument because it reflects the hegemony that silences youth and leads to more of the same in our political dialogue, which we can no longer afford.

Perhaps if candidates were to truly engage youth in medium (use up-to-date technological communication) and message (a strong, progressive discussion of the economy, higher education, climate crisis, and national service framed in a problem-solving approach) and possess a strong record of consistent conviction, they might respond. Furthermore, youth suffer from a lack of access, not apathy. When young people are registered to vote, they turn out. For example, according to the US Census, 81.6% of all registered young voters actually cast a ballot in 2004. That is on par with other portions of electorate.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s harder to register/inspire a younger group of people to vote when they are collectively facing over 500 decisions without a headlining candidate/campaign at the top. But it won’t be as hard if we’re willing to challenge our candidates’ conventional campaign strategies.

Bowers is right on one thing — young voters do form the heart of Obama’s base. Unlike Bowers, though, I argue that 2010 is so important, our issues are so pressing, and our demographic is so critical to Democratic success that there’s no choice but to view this as a mobilization struggle. Political interest is at an all-time high among youth; to capitalize, we must recalibrate our campaigns to attract the support of young people.

Sestak’s Act is Getting Old

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Joe Sestak can’t make up his mind as to whether or not he will challenge Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) in a primary election.

This morning Sestak made a big splash by telling a local paper, The Wayne Independent, that he would definitely enter the race. “I am going to get into the race against Arlen Specter,” Sestak said, in what was billed as the first media interview in a barnstorm tour of all of Pennsylvania’s counties.

But Sestak spokesperson Jonathon Dworkin tells me that in fact, Sestak has not made a final decision. Dworkin says Sestak told the paper what he’s been saying to everyone else: He’s still talking to his family about whether to run.

This follows a long pattern of Sestak publicly deliberating the possibility of challenging Specter that started when Specter became a Democrat at the end of April.

Sestak’s not exactly putting his best foot forward. For a man who is upset with Specter because he’s lacking principles, Sestak’s annoying “Am I or aren’t I?” act is hardly a pleasing alternative. This behavior suggests that Sestak’s ego isn’t any less intrusive than Specter’s is. Suck it up and make a choice, sheesh.

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