According to the news this week, the midterm elections will be characterized as any one of the following: The Economist predicts a disappointed indictment of President Obama by the left; the Washington Post warns that it will be a non sequitur speed bump that will have little bearing on 2012, and the New York Times says the race will be defined by the participation of older voters.
Absent from the discussion, however, is any serious insight regarding the continued implementation of exciting tactics from the 2008 race, in which for the most visible time in history candidates intentionally mobilized new (mostly young) voters using grassroots outreach and new technology. This will continue to play a factor this cycle.
For the past three election cycles, young voters have proven themselves to be a real force in the electorate, and this summer's ballot box horoscopes are clearly old news. The real story these days is not how young voter turnout will compare to older voter turnout, but instead how even the slightest increase in the youth vote, created by investment in the proven tactics of voter registration and a combination of grassroots and digital outreach, can alter the election landscape.
Look no further than the burst of activity we saw in Colorado on Tuesday, logging record turnout in the state's primary.
Rock the Vote's on-the-ground State Coordinator, Kyle Hamm, who is registering young voters in conjunction with New Era Colorado in Denver, reports to our DC headquarters that many young people took advantage of the state's mail-in ballot system and were highly energized by candidates who reached out to them. For example, young voters told Kyle that they loved the old green school bus Senate candidate Michael Bennet campaigned in while promoting his platform on education issues to young voters, a unique tactic that scored him street cred (and votes!) with his peers.
The Times and The Economist did note our efforts on the ground, Rock the Vote's largest investment in a midterm election in our organization's 20-year history, in their assessments of the Nov. 2 contests as a factor that could significantly mobilize young people this cycle. There's more to the story, though.
As we announced last week, there is a colossal existing and new youth market emerging that savvy candidates who recognize the power of the Millennial generation will tap into. The key is extending them an invitation to participate.
This outreach is important because the Millennial generation is a tidal wave that is now a permanent force in politics, the biggest generation in American history. Millennials will make up 24 percent of the voting age population by 2012 and 36 percent by 2020**. With numbers like those, small percentage increases in turnout mean many more young people are participating in our democracy.
When those running for office target only older voters, which the NYT and other outlets like the Seattle Times fail to note is a perpetuating strategic choice, they ignore a demographic that will help to shape this country's future in sheer numbers alone. It is not only reckless but irresponsible to ignore the vast voting bloc.
It is no coincidence that youth engagement reached record highs in 2008. The candidates recognized their power to swing an election and campaigned directly to them. Now in 2010, about one-third of registered young voters have moved since the historic 2008 election, and nearly 13,000 young people turn 18 every day, introducing 9 million new potential young voters this cycle. Engaging them in 2010 will take registration and re-registration efforts, as well as dedication by the campaigns to reach out to these voters. We know it works. These tactics were proven effective in 2004, 2006, and 2008 in increasing young voter turnout. And those increases mattered for candidates as well as the overall participation of this generation. Will we now ignore what has worked in the past?
When we step out of flawed conventional wisdom, we see that movement has happened in this space. In addition to the more than 120,000 young people we've already registered at Rock the Vote this year, the DNC has announced that young voters are their primary target demographic this season and are running campaigns using many of the best practices from the youth-vote community (online voter registration, pledge-to-vote commitments, and more), and just this week candidates like Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Corbett was making promises to young people that if elected he would work to provide them job opportunities so they don't have to leave the state to find work. Likewise, young people want to vote, especially those who were not eligible during the '08 fervor. Consider this post from Baruch college student Xue Yun Gao, who writes after his 18th birthday, "I have always wanted to vote and I regret not being able to vote in the 2008 election. I registered others to vote as my way of [involving] myself in the election."
Just as many people who relied on conventional wisdom to predict inaccurate outcomes during the Iowa Caucuses and throughout the '08 cycle were following the wrong storylines, it's up to us to keep our eyes open and focused on the beginnings of another story that is not-so-subtly starting to spark in the circles of young Americans who are committed to leading their peers to the polls in 10 weeks. These young people, in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and all around the country, may have changed addresses, but they've not had a change of heart on civic engagement. It is time we stop comparing young voter turnout to older voter turnout and recognize that even a small increase in young voter participation compared to 2006 could make a large difference in many close races, and in the future of our democracy.