Everyone Missed the Mark with Young Voters

An interesting stat based on exit polling from last night: 56 percent of voters age 18 to 29 voted for Democrats, and only 40 percent for Republicans. So even as voters at large were purging Democrats from office and electing Republicans in record number, the youngest voters stayed pretty consistent in their support for Barack Obama’s party.

Youth voter turnout as a whole dipped a little, from 23.5 percent in the last midterm elections to 20.4 percent last night., according to an organization called CIRCLE that tracks youth voter trends.

The percentage of the overall electorate that was under 30 also trended down slightly, from 12 percent in 2006 to 11 percent this year, according to CIRCLE.

So what does all this mean? Well it would appear that the youngest voters are a bit of an island, not caught up in the national trends and in many ways not part of the dominant political “conversation” that was happening this year. Less government/more government, Obamacare – all the things that got older Tea Party voters all worked up – just didn’t seem to resonate with Americans under 30.

It also would seem that both parties missed a big opportunity. Had Republicans been even marginally as effective in courting young voters as the rest of the country, their landslide victory would have been even bigger and they probably would have senate seats in Colorado and Washington locked up.

Conversely, it seems that Democrats and the president were foolish to not jump on the young voter bandwagon a big earlier and put more resources behind bringing out the youth vote. I mean, it’s just basic logic… play to your base.

Ultimately though, I think one reason neither party goes after young voters is they simply have no idea how. And it’s not clear if any of the nonpartisan groups that specialize in driving youth voter turnout – HeadCount being one of many – have quite figured it out either.

On one level I’m very happy with the work we did in 2010. We had over 25,000 people sign a “Pledge to Vote,” we collected another 14,000 new registrations, and our Jay-Z PSA ran multiple times on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

On another level though, I have to confess to being disappointed. To paraphrase Jay-Z, we’re trying to “change the world” here, not just rack up statistics. So this is definitely a day to ask what we could have done different or better.

Of course these answers are elusive. But I think what was really missing this year was something that would get young America talking about the election via social media. Sure there was some chatter on Facebook and Twitter all year, and it erupted in the days leading up to the election with various “Commit to Vote” and “I Voted” icons. But online, 2010 was the year of the double rainbow and and a two-year old smoking, not the midterms.

To win back the gains we made from 2004-08, when youth voter participation increased with each election, we’re going to have to get a lot more creative.

Democrats and republicans both left a lot on the table this year with young voters. But change in this arena is not going to come from the top. It will come from young people and youth culture. It will happen organically and not look or feel like a “campaign.”

I leave with one final thought… With all the millions of dollars spent on advertising, phone banking software and fancy election websites this year, the thing that seemed to catch the most fire was www.YourFuckingPollingPlace.com. 36,000 likes on Facebook in two days.

It’s a case study in how humor + simplicity can equal highly effective political organizing. It’s ideas like that will re-engage young people, and deliver a lot of fucking voters to Democrats and Republicans alike.

Tell your friends!