06/12/2014 11:45 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Warning to Dems: Be Smart When Mobilizing Young Voters

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As Democrats press forward in what is shaping up to be a challenging 2014 midterm election, everyone is asking one big question: "How can we turn out an electorate that looks more like those from the 2008 and 2012 elections, presidential elections that we won, than the electorate from 2010, a midterm election in which we took a pounding?" Midterm turnout is an enduring challenge for Democrats, but in 2014 this task is being framed as how to turn out the Obama coalition -- or, as some have begun to call it, the rising American electorate, defined by most observers of political campaigns as African Americans, Hispanics, single women and young voters. And yes, smart Democratic campaigns should do everything possible to turn out every eligible African-American, Hispanic and single-woman voter, but the issue of turning out young voters is much trickier and demands closer examination and specific voter research for every campaign.

When focusing on the youth vote, of particular concern is the persistent downward trend in white youth voters' support for Democrats.

In 2012, 60 percent of all young voters supported President Obama, yet just 44 percent of young white voters supported him, and only 41 percent of young white men voted for Obama. To clarify, 18- to 29-year-old whites voted for Obama at higher rates than older whites did -- 44 percent among 18- to 29-year-old whites compared with 38 percent among 30- to 44-year-old and 45- to 64-year-old whites and 39 percent among white voters over 65 -- but 44-percent support among any constituency doesn't warrant Democratic campaigns' focus on blanket registration and turnout programs. Instead, polling and modeling of 18- to 29-year-old white voters must be done before campaigns decide if these voters are registration and turnout audiences or persuasion audiences.

Tracking across the last three federal election cycles, Democratic performance among black and Hispanic youth voters closely mirrored one another; support dropped in 2010, consistent with Democratic performance as a whole, before rebounding in 2012 at only marginally lower levels than in 2008. However, among white youth voters, the decrease in Democratic support from 2008 to 2010, from 54 percent to 45 percent, was followed by another drop in 2012, down to 44 percent. Though the drop in Democratic support among white youth voters from 2010 to 2012 was marginal compared with changes in Democratic support by black and Hispanic youth voters in the same period (they increased their support by 5 and 11 percentage points, respectively), this flagging support is having a persistent and adverse effect on overall Democratic performance.

In addition, while Democratic performance among older white voters dropped some between 2008 and 2012 (about 3 percent among 30- to 44-year-olds, 4 percent among 45- to 64-year-olds, and 1 percent among those over 65), the 10-percent drop among 18- to 29-year-old whites between those two elections is extremely significant.

However, just as youth voters present specific challenges for Democrats, demographic changes underway in America are having an accelerated impact on the makeup of this youth vote, which offers a real opportunity for Democrats moving forward.

Since 2000, and even previously, the minority youth vote has steadily grown as a share of the overall youth electorate. Comparing successive presidential and midterm elections, the vote share for black, Hispanic, and "other" youth has increased in nearly every instance over the last 12 years. This diversification, though also taking place in the overall electorate, is occurring at such a rapid pace that total white 18- to 29-year-olds are projected to become a minority by 2028.

In 2000 white youth voters made up 74 percent of the youth vote, with black and Hispanic youth coming in at 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively, and "other" youth voters making up the remaining 4 percent. This youth vote breakdown by race was only incrementally different from total vote breakdown by race, with whites making up 81 percent of all voters. Just over one decade ago these overwhelming white majorities blunted the electoral impact of minority voters -- both in the youth demographic and the total electorate -- such that strong Democratic performance with minority voters could be overwhelmed by Republican support from more conservative elements of the electorate.

However, the racial makeup of the electorate, especially among youth voters, is rapidly becoming more diverse. In 2012, white voters made up 58 percent of the youth vote, a drop of 16 percentage points from 2000. Consequently, blacks' and Hispanics' share of the youth vote increased to 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively, with "other" voters equaling 7 percent. This reveals that since 2000 the Hispanic share of the youth vote has nearly doubled, while the black and "other" shares of the youth vote have increased by approximately 50 percent. These changes taking place within the racial makeup of youth voters are far surpassing the electorate as a whole, where the white share of the vote moved from 81 percent to 72 percent from 2000 to 2012.

Considering these trends, there are immediate steps that Democrats can take to engage the increasingly heterogeneous youth electorate. The youth vote as a whole regularly drops off in midterm elections. However, minority youth are consistently and rapidly increasing their share of the midterm youth electorate from preceding midterm elections. In 2014 Democrats should build upon this positive momentum by aggressively working to register and turn out the growing and Democratically aligned population of minority youth voters.

The opportunities presented by minority youth voters should not obscure the fact that over the last three federal elections, white youth voters have supported Democrats at a rate of 48 percent, compared with just 40 percent for white voters as a whole. Furthermore, while acknowledging recent struggles in Democratic performance with white youth voters, Gallup has highlighted Democrats' advantage in partisan self-identification with white youth since 2006. However, Gallup's data on partisan self-identification is representative of national adults, not registered voters, and these gains with white youth have degraded since 2008, such that today Democrats hold a narrow 45- to 43-percent advantage.

Today's youth voters, white or otherwise, will be an enduring part of the American electorate. When recent struggles with white youth voters are contrasted with encouraging but qualified data on partisan self-identification, the task for Democrats with white youth voters becomes clear: Increase support through carefully developed polling and modeling of registration and turnout and persuasion targets. In the triumphant 2006 midterms, young white women turned out and voted Democratic at higher rates than young white men. However, while young white women now consistently turn out at higher rates than young white men in presidential cycles, with the exception of 2006, this turnout advantage has disappeared in midterm cycles -- a drop-off that Democrats must address. Regarding persuasion efforts, research from Project New America has found that progressive messaging, especially on pocketbook and governance issues, increases youth voters' support for a generic congressional Democrat by eight points, from a 15- to 23-point advantage over a generic Republican. These are the type of factors we need to consider when targeting white youth voters this cycle; this is the work we need to start doing now.

So as Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations are drafting their 2014 voter contact plans, let's make sure we are doing this polling and modeling necessary to effectively target resources aimed at younger white voters while doing everything we possibly can to ensure the highest level of mobilization for turnout of all other 18- to 29-year-olds.

Ryan Pougiales, Political Analyst at The Atlas Project, contributed to this post.