Neon signs blared messages at George Mason University students — “Are you tired of us chasing you with clipboards? Register to Vote” and “Name a more iconic duo . . . you and voting” — next to a table laden with fidget spinners and warm chocolate chip cookies.
“Young people can relate to memes,” Kara Kline, a 20-year-old paid organizer, said during a registration drive last month. “People will stop and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw your sign. It was so funny.’ ”
A preoccupation with things millennials love helped NextGen America, the liberal advocacy group founded by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, elect a wave of Virginia Democrats in 2017 — an outcome he hopes to repeat in the midterm elections nationwide.
He has committed $30 million in 10 states including Virginia, where he will spend at least $2 million to try to unseat Republican Reps. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia and Scott Taylor of Virginia Beach — two priority seats for both parties this year.
Six months ahead of the general election, NextGen has 47 paid staffers in Virginia, seven of whom are full time, and a presence on 17 college campuses. That will swell to 60 staffers and 30 campuses by Election Day.
This commitment to turning out young Democrats comes at a time when, polls show, President Trump is unpopular among young people and Virginia Republicans have no single donor who can match Steyer’s investment in their age group.
“That is a game changer, what they’re doing,” said Morton Blackwell, the GOP national committeeman from Virginia who has been organizing young voters since the early 1960s. “It remains to be seen if there are going to be resources available to in some way at least get into the same order of magnitude, if not to match, what the left is doing.”
NextGen’s plan hinges on having the resources to maintain staff over months, rather than hiring people weeks before an election, and using social media in creative ways to win over skeptical but savvy millennial voters.
The group also used the Freedom of Information Act to gather student cellphone numbers and text voters — a practice that could be curtailed after action by the General Assembly this year, although Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has not said whether he will sign that legislation.
“We’ve been in Virginia for a long time, so our ability to talk to millennials is completely different than it would be if we were just starting up,” Steyer said in an interview in Washington last month.
In 2017, youth turnout surged to 34 percent, eight points higher than the previous governor’s race, in 2013, and double what it was in 2009, according to estimates by a research group at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.
Sixty-nine percent of young voters preferred Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie, a significant jump from 2013, when Northam’s Democratic predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, received just 45 percent support from people under 30, the group found.
NextGen has gotten more sophisticated about its message and how to communicate it since 2013, when the group spent $8 million, mostly on TV ads, to help McAuliffe win the governorship.
By 2016, NextGen was deploying targeted Facebook and online ads and offbeat strategies designed to generate social media posts. “If you put a bunch of puppies at the polls, it turns out people stop and vote,” Steyer said.
On a chilly afternoon in March, GMU students breezed by voter-registration tables where students made signs to display at the March for Our Lives in Washington.
“Already registered!” one passerby blurted out. “Sorry, I’m late to class!” said another.
Unfazed volunteers, each wearing a blue NextGen “Resist. Win. Repeat.” T-shirt, asked them to instead fill out pledge cards indicating which issues they care about most.
Popular choices were gun control, cost of college, immigration, access to affordable health care and climate change, each of which Steyer considers a plank of an overall social justice platform that resonates with young people.
“Young people are angry about a lot of things,” said Carter Black, NextGen’s 24-year-old youth organizing director in Virginia. “If you don’t represent us as young people, we will vote you out of office and elect people who will represent us.”
Black said plenty of young people were engaged in 2016, when she was a campus organizer at James Madison University, but Trump’s election flipped a switch.
“His atrocious job performance has certainly served as a catalyst to really re-energize young people,” she said.
Molly Salavantis, the 22-year-old manager of field organizers for NextGen in Virginia, managed 60 volunteers at Virginia Commonwealth University last year. She sent some into classrooms for voter-registration presentations at the start of class; others hit lines of people waiting at food trucks.
“You could not get from one end of VCU to the other without someone with a clipboard asking you to register to vote,” she said, proudly. Turnout doubled at the VCU precinct.
According to exit polls in the Virginia governor’s race last year, 71 percent of voters under 30 disapproved of Trump, while 28 percent approved. Among voters of all ages, 57 percent disapproved of Trump.
Although Trump at the top of the ticket poses challenges for Virginia Republicans, Blackwell, the GOP committeeman, said there’s no reason their platform shouldn’t appeal to young people.
“Young people don’t generally like to be told what to do,” he said in an interview in his Clarendon office. “They resist authority. The idea of limited government and free enterprise rather than being told what you have to do all the time is very popular.”
Blackwell, 78, was the youngest elected delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention, which nominated Barry Goldwater. He drew up a youth organizing plan for Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign that cost $62,800 and relied on three full-time staffers, a small fraction of Steyer’s complement.
“It’s a matter of resources,” he said. “Tom Steyer showed that just one wealthy person can write a check to fund the whole thing. . . . If you’ve got the money, you can organize on campus.”
Chris Leavitt, a political consultant who ran Gillespie’s campaign, noted its innovative use of Snapchat filters for tailgaters at the University of Virginia, likening them to the yard sign of the future.
The campaign also put out the occasional goofy video, with Gillespie driving down I-95 or sharing what he learned at odd jobs in college. He read “Mean tweets” to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in a video for his 2014 Senate campaign.
In the end, Gillespie turned out more voters for a governor’s race than anyone but Northam, whose election marked voters’ first opportunity to vent their frustration over Trump and soothe regrets over the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“Election night, I felt very helpless; I could have done more,” said Kline, a GMU junior and fellow from Fluvanna County who has worked for campaigns since 2009. “That’s when I realized, I need to do it myself, or it’s not going to get done.”
Just then, Marisa Gallego, 18, approached the table. She was registered to vote near her parents’ home, but now that she’s a freshman computer engineering major living on campus, it’s easier to vote at GMU.
“I was planning on it, but I was kind of just waiting for them to show up because I knew they were gonna,” she said.
Kline asked her to fill out a registration form and promised to follow up.
“Would you prefer a text or a phone call?” she asked.
“A text,” Gallego said.
“Ok, I’ll shoot you a text tomorrow,” Kline said.
Nearby, Terence Stovall, a 22-year-old government and international politics major at GMU who worked for the Clinton campaign, said he shouldered her loss alone in his dorm room and resolved to do more.
“Right when you think you’re working as hard as you can, you can always work harder,” said Stovall, who volunteered for Northam in his home town of Roanoke before NextGen hired him as a paid fellow. “If losing doesn’t motivate you to win, nothing will.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.