This coming weekend, Democrats from across California will be converging on Los Angeles for the annual California Democratic Party State Convention. Activists, elected officials and candidates will attend the convention to shake hands, take meetings and look for the election trifecta -- endorsements, money and volunteers.
On Saturday, candidates will also stop by the California Young Democrats' meeting, looking for a chance to address hundreds of young activists, ages 18-35, as we gather for our annual convention, which is held concurrently with the full CDP convention.
Candidates will get a minute or two to tell us why Young Democrats should engage in their campaign and, if the CYD meeting is anything like years past, they'll tell us how, at one time, they were a Young Democrat, too. In their best attempts to pander to our demographic, many will repeat the oft-used phrase that "Young Democrats are the future."
And to be fair, many of us will continue to be involved in politics and the Democratic Party for years to come, and some of us will take on additional leadership roles in the Party or run for elected office. So, in that way, we are the future. But labeling Young Dems simply as "the future" downplays the importance of our demographic now. Young voters are not a constituency to be considered in the perpetual "future." Rather, young voters are one of the most potentially powerful demographics within the Democratic Party today.
It is a very simple equation -- when young people vote, Democrats win.
Polling shows that some very important races are terrifyingly close in California. Not only will there likely be close general election races for Governor and the US Senate, but Democrats throughout the state will face Republican opponents who are banking on a historical election trend. They are hoping that, as in years past, when the party of the President changes, there will be a large shift of seats away from the Party now in power.
Gov. Tim Kaine, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, put it bluntly: "The average president loses 28 House seats, four Senate seats and governor's races. And we're not living in average times."
We've already seen inklings of this trend. In January, the country was stunned when Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown in the race for the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat. Yes, Democrats fielded an unfortunately weak candidate in Coakley, and there were lessons learned from the defeat. But in the lessons that we take from the race, there is one that has been largely overlooked -- young voters, aged 18-29, still voted overwhelmingly for Martha Coakley. In fact, almost 60% of young voters in the Special Election voted for the Democrat, even though she only ended up with 47% of the vote.
So where was the disconnect between the young voter's choice and the final results? Only 15% of young voters went to the polls and cast ballots. This is a marked difference from 2008, when a whopping 52% of young Americans voted. It was clear in the 2008 Presidential election and it was clear in the Massachusetts Special Election -- when young people vote, Democrats win.
Issue polls show us that young voters are progressive voters. A recent Public Policy Institute of California study found that a full two-thirds (66%) of Californians age 18-34 support marriage equality.* Republican political strategist Dan Schnur wrote a column in the LA Times last week citing a poll that young voters - regardless of race - opposed denying services to undocumented immigrants by a 20 point margin. Schnur wrote, "age has become the primary factor determining opinion on illegal immigration in California."
And young voters don't just support progressive causes; we support the candidates who champion them. The aforementioned PPIC poll also found that Jerry Brown leads Meg Whitman 44% to 30% in voters aged 18-35 and "younger voters prefer Boxer (56% to 30% for Fiorina)." This is night and day from the results of the polls of all likely voters, where these races are neck-and-neck.
The question facing campaigns this fall is not about how to convince young voters that Democrats are on the right side of issues of importance. Our generation has demonstrated a widespread acceptance of the progressive values which, for a large part, make up the Democratic Party platform. The question is how to activate these young voters and get them to the polls.
There is no silver bullet that will turn out young voters. As with every other constituency, it takes a strategic effort and focus of resources to reach young people. Ensuring young voter turnout, and in turn ensuring Democratic victories, means more than paying us lip service. It means including young voter outreach in campaign plans and investing resources in turning out our demographic. It means having young supporters play an active role in campaigns by reaching out to millennial voters with a message that resonates on a peer-to-peer level. Young voters need to understand their stake in the election, that their vote means something to their lives and that the candidate is someone who will fight for what they believe in - which is a progressive, positive agenda.
President Barack Obama did it right. He had a message that spoke to young voters, one of hope and a new direction for our country. He took bold stances and he made sure he got the word out to young voters - on our own playing field. His use of technology was strategic and innovative and it translated traditional campaign tactics to a medium accessible to our generation.
The California Young Democrats' slogan is, "the margin of victory." In these coming elections, young voters can be the margin of victory for Democrats throughout the state. But it won't happen if there are not concerted efforts to reach out to young voters and give us a compelling reason to go to the polls.
Maybe that's why, this year, the California Young Democrats' Convention slogan is simple: We vote, Democrats win.