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Five myths about young voters

By Heather Smith
Sunday, October 24, 2010; B02

In 2008, young voters swept President Obama and a Democratic majority into office. He spoke to them, texted them, involved them -- and they showed up. Now, with the midterms approaching, the president is again trying to energize these voters. At an event last month at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he told the crowd, "We can't sit this one out."

That's the worry among Democrats and a constant refrain from both sides: Young voters are fickle and will stay home. It's just one of the myths being peddled about young voters and what it will take to get them to the polls next week.

1. Democrats need young voters to show up Nov. 2. Too bad they won't.

Both parties should be worried about youth turnout, but not because young people don't want to vote. In a recent Rock the Vote poll, we found that they are paying attention to the election but that most don't relate to the political parties or their bickering. They do, however, relate to individual candidates who address issues they care about, such as jobs, the economy, keeping college affordable, energy independence and same-sex marriage.

This generation of young voters -- the 22.5 million 18-to-29-year-olds who voted in 2008 -- has momentum in its favor. Youth participation at the ballot box has been steadily increasing in both midterm and presidential elections. In the 2006 midterms, the turnout rate among young voters increased to 25 percent, from 22 percent in 2002, according to census data.

With a few notable exceptions, candidates from both parties this year have done a bad job connecting with young people. They're not on campuses, at concerts or at football games when organizations such as mine are out registering voters or figuring out how to get them to the polls.

At Rock the Vote, we're confident that the turnout among young voters will climb again this year in the places where office-seekers have made the effort. We just wonder why more candidates haven't taken a cue from the last election cycle and included young people in their outreach.

2. With Facebook and text messages, there's no need to knock on doors anymore.

There's nothing more powerful than a friend talking to a friend. A Facebook account or a text message blast does not replace personal outreach.

I've seen this firsthand with Rock the Vote, the example I know best. We've registered more than 280,000 voters this year through a combination of in-person and online efforts. We've been on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Colorado, and our digital strategy includes outreach to all 50 states.

In the final days, we're sticking with this two-pronged approach. We have a multimedia campaign called "Vote Fearlessly" that includes Facebook, Twitter, text message and e-mail reminders about Election Day. We'll also be calling people on the phone and knocking on their doors. I will be donning a costume and joining thousands of other volunteers for our "Trick or Vote" canvassing in key markets over Halloween weekend. After all, there are still many Americans who don't have access to the latest technology, and our visits might be the only connection they have to the political process.

Of course, digital outreach and organizing have made a big difference. As a point of comparison, in 2006, we registered about 50,000 young people, and we know that digital organizing has been a big factor in the growth of our numbers since then. But it's about much more than clicks and downloads. We've talked to people at thousands of events from Passion Pit concerts to high school assemblies this year. That's how we cultivated the kind of highly motivated volunteers who typically turn out (and bring their friends) in greater numbers on Election Day.

3. After '08, everyone learned how to energize new voters.

Though the Obama campaign executed an incredibly effective youth-voter strategy in 2008, the country's major political parties and midterm candidates do not have a strong relationship with young people today. Many congressional incumbents who are now struggling won their seats on the swell of young-voter turnout in the last election, so you'd think they would have spent time engaging these same voters to win again. They didn't.

Instead, it has seemed at times that we've been heading backward. Young people don't show up for midterms, many campaigns seemed to assume, so the key fight is for older voters. Convince established voters to change their lifelong habits (get a Democrat to vote Republican or vice versa, or convince a lapsed voter to show up), and you could win. But the 2008 election showed that persuading people to change their minds isn't the only strategy: It is possible to expand the electorate if you can excite young people.

This time around, no one is really seeking to foster that excitement. Look no further than a college campus. In 2008 you couldn't walk five feet without running into a clipboard-toting campaign staffer, and bumper stickers were everywhere. True, that was a presidential election, and these are midterms. But Rock the Vote's coordinators in Ohio, Florida, Colorado and other states with high-profile races say it's very quiet on campus. If it weren't for the student groups and youth organizations that are active, it would be tough to even realize that the election is days away. Too many campaigns have left students alone.

4. There is a huge enthusiasm gap between the mostly Democratic new voters from '08 and the tea party movement.

Simply put, young people do not lack enthusiasm for the political process right now. In our poll, 77 percent of them indicated that they are very likely or somewhat likely to vote, and almost two-thirds said they are paying close attention to the elections. The tea party just doesn't resonate for many young people. So they're not focused on, or energized by, the movement that seems to be sucking up most of the airtime this election cycle.

But young people are still packing stadiums for events with the president in Wisconsin and Ohio, and tuning into MTV for Obama's town hall meeting.

While young voters say the past two years have been frustrating, that stems largely from the slow pace of change and the sense that their concerns are trumped by corporate and special interests. There is a strong desire among young people for current political leaders, including Obama -- whom they supported two-to-one in 2008 -- to deliver on the "change" promise. Favorability ratings from our poll indicate that Obama (56 percent) and the Democratic Party (46 percent) still receive the highest marks, with the Republican Party (36 percent) trailing. Sarah Palin (28 percent) and the tea party (26 percent) receive lower favorability ratings

5. Obama has rekindled his campaign magic with big rallies in battleground states.

In the final weeks before the midterms, Obama has been out on the campaign trail, saying that new voters and young people will make the difference in close races. Yet, while it helps Democrats to have the president reconnecting with the young people who elected him, on Nov. 2 we -- young voters and everyone else -- will be casting our votes for state Senate and county sheriff, not for president.

Both parties got a late start in targeting young voters, and an energetic speech by the president isn't going to make up all that lost ground.

In our poll, we found that about 60 percent of young people said they felt more cynical now about politics than they did two years ago. That doesn't mean they should be ignored or written off. Eighty-three percent of them also said they still believe their generation has the power to change the world. They care enough to go see the president speak. They are paying attention. Hundreds of thousands of new voters have been registered this year. Candidates still need to put young voters on their call lists, address the relevant issues and ask for their votes.

The 22.5 million young voters who headed to the polls in 2008 want to show up again for something -- they just need a candidate to give them something to show up for.

Heather Smith is the president of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to youth voter outreach.

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