Although it is notoriously hard to get young people to vote, both parties are pouring everything they have into getting American youth to the polls. That’s because the youth vote could very well be the key to the electoral realignment both parties are working toward. We know this because it was young voters who drove the last major realignment in American politics.
The youth vote was at the root of Richard Nixon’s success 46 years ago. (Yes, Richard Nixon.) With a robust and targeted operation, Nixon championed youth politics, surprising the press, pundits, Democrats, student radicals and even some Republicans by harnessing young people’s potential. As one reporter observed, “Never before have the boys in the backroom of American politics paid such obeisance at the altar of youth.” Nixon’s youth effort fortified the GOP with a cadre of younger and more media-savvy voters. These young Republicans provided votes in the short term and helped rebuild the party in the long term — the very reasons both parties should invest in their youth operations today.
Initially, Sen. George McGovern, the antiwar and youth-friendly liberal Democratic candidate, was best positioned to harvest support from young voters in 1972. His advisers predicted the Democrats could win up to 70 percent of the new voting bloc of 18- to 21-year-olds created by the 26th Amendment. With 8 million potential votes, this was more than enough to make up the difference between Nixon and his 1968 Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. (Nixon defeated Humphrey by a razor-thin margin of 500,000 votes.) In many ways, Democrats hoped 1972 could serve as a do-over. As the young Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank mused, “If you reran 1968 with the young people voting, the Democrats would win.”
Despite these assumptions, young voters did not flock to either party. Thirty-two percent of 21- to 24-year-old voters registered as independent in 1964; 52 percent did so in 1972. In an odd twist, young voters rejected traditional party politics and embarked on a new political sensibility defined by independence. They were more educated than their parents (high school graduation rates rose from 63 percent to over 80 percent during the 1960s, and college enrollment doubled), and less likely to follow in their parents’ political footsteps. As the political scientist Louis M. Seagull claimed in 1971, party identification and party machines lost the “glue-giving function” because of “mass media and communication.” Perhaps the most devastating part of their politics was their choice to not vote as a form of protest.
Nixon, however, resolved to fold young people into his constituency, proclaiming that “there can be no generation gap in America.” Searching for an aggressive approach to youth politics, Nixon looked south, to Tennessee. There, Sen. Bill Brock had cultivated a groundbreaking approach to youth-friendly politics during his victorious campaign to unseat longtime incumbent Al Gore Sr. Brock created a separate youth campaign, Young Volunteers for Brock. As he recollected with relish, “Throughout the campaign we had over 8,500 sincere, attractive, articulate young people working day and night for my election.”
He persuaded Nixon to follow suit. The president allocated over $1 million to Young Voters for the President (YVP), the Nixon campaign’s organization for young people that ultimately attracted more than 400,000 volunteers. Despite the widespread assumption that the vast number of young voters casting ballots for the first time would tilt the electorate to the Democratic Party, Republicans successfully attracted young Americans not aligned with the left — people one Nixon adviser called the “sons and daughters of the silent majority.”
Nixon embraced media as central to this mobilization. During the 1972 Republican National Convention, clean-cut, well-mannered and exuberant YVP volunteers attended a concert in nearby Marine Stadium. In the audience, over 6,000 young people came together to celebrate the president and their own emergence on the political scene. Sammy Davis Jr. kept the crowd going until the chairwoman of the YVP, Pam Powell, led Nixon to the center of the floating stage, where he addressed a crowd that one journalist described as the “not-so silent young majority.” In his memoirs, Nixon recalled the event’s electric environment: “It was music. This was a new kind of Republican youth: they weren’t square, but they weren’t ashamed of being positive and proud.”
After Nixon praised Sammy Davis Jr., the singer sneaked up behind the leader of the free world and squeezed him with both arms. While “the hug” lasted only seconds, it brought the crowd to a frenzy and created a sensation in the popular press; Time magazine, for example, dedicated a two-page spread to a photograph of the brief embrace in Miami.
This campaign had both style and substance. YVP director Ken Rietz had served as Brock’s campaign adviser in 1970, and revived the Tennessee formula to build a youth campaign with a robust organization, rejecting any strategy that simply used “an expenditure of millions of dollars on mass media.” The youth organization gave leadership opportunities to volunteers under 30 who worked hard to promote Nixon’s message. They staffed storefront offices in every state and filled them with handmade, psychedelic posters that proclaimed “Nixon Now” and “Right on Mr. President.” Each state’s Young Voters chairman regularly met with senior Nixon operatives, who then trained YVP office managers to maintain a direct connection between local offices and the central office in Washington.
The YVP empowered a cadre of future young leaders who would become party leaders, campaign managers, officeholders and political operatives. Many of them found themselves in distinguished White House positions just eight years later during Reagan’s presidency.
YVP also expanded Nixon’s coalition, using youth surrogates to reach non-college youth most likely to support the “silent majority.” Nixon’s youth effort identified and mobilized different young voters to expand his share of the Sun Belt vote as well as the white ethnic urban constituency that had traditionally sided with Democrats. During the Republican National Convention, the White House invited a 20-year-old boilermaker from Pittsburgh, Ross Scumaci, to second the president’s nomination. In the eyes of one union leader, Scumaci “galvanized ethnic and labor Democrats around RN.”
In addition to jobs and political experience, the emerging youth vote in 1972 dramatically increased young voters’ influence on policy. It was no coincidence that Nixon announced on July 28, 1972, that the draft would officially end the following July.
Young voters can make a difference if the party is willing to invest in youth. In 2008, on his way to winning over 60 percent of voters under 30, Barack Obama’s campaign empowered millennial voters and volunteers, mirroring the YVP emphasis on organization to include young voters. The lessons are clear: If our leaders re-center youth politics, both the Democratic and Republican parties could benefit. Most important for youth today, the 1972 example shows that if young voters turn their activism into a more potent political force in elections, they will be heard — and empowered.