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Youth Targeted Voter Mobilization

How Campaigns Targeting Youth Are Crucial to the Long-Term Success
of the Democratic Party

Kevin Bondelli

A Report for the Young Democrats of Arizona

February 20, 2007
Executive Summary

A great deal of research on the subject of youth voter mobilization has been done

over the last few years. The research shows that: 1) traditional campaigns do not target

young voters, 2) peer-to-peer contact is the most effective strategy for youth

mobilization, and 3) the political party that is able to successfully mobilize the youth vote

will gain a great advantage over the long-term.

This report will show:

• Traditional campaigns do not attempt to mobilize young voters because of the

difficulty in making successful contacts

• Youth mobilization efforts are more successful in mobilizing young voters than

traditional campaigns

• Peer-to-peer contact is the most effective way to mobilize young voters

• Habitual voting trends indicate that a person voting in two consecutive elections

will likely be a voter for life and voting for a political party in three consecutive

elections will likely identify with that party for life

• It is important for the Democratic party to reach out to the young voter

demographic to begin building party loyalty with dramatic long-term benefits

• Youth mobilization campaigns do not hurt traditional campaigns and can be the

difference between difficulty and defeat in favor of the Democratic candidate

The question of whether or not youth targeted mobilization campaigns are more

effective at increasing youth turnout than traditional campaigns is being heavily debated

within the Young Democrats of Arizona organization. The application of this question is

whether the Young Democrats of Arizona will focus on volunteering on traditional

campaigns using that campaigns methods and targeting, or to run their own youth

targeted mobilization campaign in concert with the traditional campaigns.

The research presented in this report supports the argument that youth targeted

campaigns are needed to mobilize young voters and that the Young Democrats of

Arizona should run a youth targeted campaign. The evidence in this report comes from

the research of the Kennedy School of Government, Yale University, the George

Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, the Allegheny College

Center for Political Participation, The Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at

University of Akron, Skyline Public Works, and the Center for Information & Research

on Civic Learning & Engagement.

This report describes why traditional campaigns are not mobilizing youth, how

peer-to-peer contact is the most effective method of youth mobilization, and why it is in

the Democratic Party’s long-term interest to win the race for the votes of Generation Y.

Youth: The Ignored Voting Demographic

The most likely reason for low voting efficacy for American citizens between the

ages of 18 and 29 is that they are not being targeted by traditional political campaigns.

Dan Glickman, the Director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics,

believes his research supports this conclusion: “Through our research, we have learned

many of the reasons that young people do not vote and that candidates and campaigns do

not seriously court this constituency.”1

The political campaign for an individual candidate for office is by nature short-

sighted and short-lived. David W. Nickerson of Yale University describes how “political

campaigns, in particular, are poorly suited for mobilizing young voters” due to the fact

that “the operational time frame is short, so low contact rates are a major frustration.”2

Political parties have not been much better at mobilizing young voters: “Because young

people vote at low rates, parties assume efforts to boost turnout will not be as cost

effective and concentrate on higher turnout age groups.”3 If political parties continue to

focus their targeting on higher-efficacy voters they will continue “a vicious cycle where

young people feel alienated from the campaign process and vote at lower rates, which

then causes campaigns to ignore young citizens further.”4

Daniel Shea and John Green conducted research on state and local organizations

of both the Republican and Democratic parties and youth targeting. Their research clearly

shows how much young voters are being ignored by traditional campaign organizations.

They found “young voters do not seem to be on the radar for local party leaders, even

John F. Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics, A Guide to Reaching Young Voters, 2004.
Nickerson, David W. Hunting the Elusive Young Voter, Journal of Political Marketing, Vol. 5 (3) 2006.
Nickerson, 2006.
Nickerson, 2006.

when the leaders were asked about the ‘long-term success of their organizations.’”5 In

Shea & Green, local party chairs were asked: “Are there demographic groups of voters

that are currently important to the long-term success of your local party?” Only 8% of

those party leaders mentioned young voters, and “senior citizens were mentioned nearly

three times as often.”6

Political parties are less likely to include young voters in their targeting because

of the “difficulty of reaching out to them.”7 Young voters also tend to lack “significant

income and therefore do not make campaign contributions.”8 These characteristics result

in political parties largely ignoring young voters in both their persuasion and fundraising

programs. The low voter turnout performance caused by the difficulty in contacting

young voters “and the lack of alternative benefits affords political parties and campaigns

little reason to court the young voter” if their focus is purely on short-term victory.9 In

order to conserve resources young voters are not included in the targeting to reach a

campaign’s vote goal, even though “the relatively less stable preferences of young people

make them a relatively larger portion of the persuadable electorate to which candidates

could appeal.”10

It is clear that young voters will not be mobilized in any significant volume unless

they are targeted, something political parties and traditional campaigns are not likely to

do. Shea and Green have found that “most local parties either have no youth mobilization

Shea, Daniel M. and Green, John C. Throwing a Better Party: Local Mobilizing Institutions & the Youth
Vote. April 7, 2004.
Shea & Green, 2004.
Shea & Green, 2004.
Nickerson, 2006.
Nickerson, 2006.
Nickerson, 2006.

programs or their programs are extremely modest in scope.”11 Without another

organization specifically seeking out young voters the “vicious cycle” David Nickerson

describes will not be broken.

Shea & Green, 2004.

The Advantage of Peer-to-Peer Youth Mobilization

Most research on voter mobilization has concluded that the effectiveness of a

voter mobilization tactic increases when the contact becomes more personal. Field

experiments conducted by Young Voter Strategies confirmed that “person to person

contact has the strongest impact on the likelihood that a young person will register and

vote,” and in successful youth mobilization campaigns it “seems clear that grassroots and

peer-to-peer campaigns will play a major role.”12 Research conducted by Ryan Friedrichs

in 2002 “found the more personal tactics has the highest impact and were the most cost

effective.”13 The results of Friedrichs’ research on young voter mobilization two years

later suggested “several peer-to-peer field programs reached voters traditional campaigns

did not, adding an extra 5% on average to progressive turnout in target precincts.”14

Research has also shown that young voters can be mobilized if a campaign targets

them and is able to make contacts. According to research conducted by the George

Washington University, “the lesson learned is that today’s young adults are an engaged

generation that will vote in higher numbers if they are asked.”15 Nickerson’s research has

shown “that the obstacle to mobilizing young American voters is not the lack of

responsiveness to the message but rather reaching the audience to give the message in the

first place” and that “young people are equally mobilized by contact as mature

Smith, Heather. Targeted Field Efforts Mobilize Young Voters. Politics Online Conference Magazine,
Friedrichs, Ryan. Mobilizing 18-35 Year Old Voters: An Analysis of the Michigan Democratic Party’s
2002 Youth Coordinated Campaign, 2003.
Friedrichs, Ryan. Young Voter Mobilization in 2004: Analysis of Outreach, Persuasion and Turnout of
18-29 Year Old Progressive Voters, 2006.
The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Young Voter Mobilization
Tactics: A Compilation of the Most Recent Research on Traditional and Innovative Voter Turnout
Techniques, 2006.

individuals.”16 If young voters are not inherently less likely to vote because of apathy and

can be mobilized if they can be contacted, we must answer the following questions: 1)

who should attempt to mobilize young voters and 2) what are the best tactics for

mobilizing young voters.

When it comes to determining who should engage in youth voter mobilization, the

current research gives good direction. Nickerson suggests “given the difficulty in locating

young people, the most effective means of mobilizing them may be through groups that

work with youth as a part of their daily mission.”17 In Friedrichs’ 2004 research, “all

organizations that participated in this evaluation, aside from the Kerry for President

College Campaign, operated outside the traditional campaign structures. This peer driven,

outsider element of these efforts may have been part of the key to their success.”18

Donald Green and Alan Gerber, whose research is heavily referred to in the voter

mobilization academic community, have found that “mobilization campaigns work and

have the potential to substantially increase youth turnout.”19 The research suggests that

the best answer to the question of who should engage in youth voter mobilization is a

group that works with youth as part of their mission, is peer driven and outside of

traditional campaign structures, and is able to run a targeted youth mobilization


Studies that have been testing the efficacy of specific mobilization tactics for

young voters offer direction in answering the question of how to mobilize young voters.

Although Friedrichs’ 2002 research “has not found differences in the mobilization effect

Nickerson, 2006.
Nickerson, 2006.
Friedrichs, 2006.
Green, Donald P. and Gerber, Alan S. Getting Out the Youth Vote: Results from Randomized Field
Experiments, 2001.

of the tactics across age groups” it does not mean that there is no difference in the

mobilization effect of how tactics are deployed.20 The research of Green & Gerber

revealed differences between the nature of phone contacts to young voters and phone

contacts to older voters “both in tone and content.”21 Effective phone contacts to young

voters are “chatty and informal, sometimes lasting for five or ten minutes, and conveyed

information about where and when to vote.”22 Phone contacts to older voters are more

scripted and much quicker, since campaigns with hard election deadlines need to focus on

quantity to be able to reach their contact goals.

The ability to overcome the difficulty in finding young voters to make the

contacts is important. In the Michigan Democratic Party’s 2002 Youth Coordinated

Campaign “most door-to-door outreach occurred on weekends and often between noon

and 5PM, when many young people may not have been home. This fact and the transitory

nature of 18-35 year olds, which decreases address accuracy, likely contributed to the low

contact rate.”23 Shea & Green suggest “that ongoing social actives [sic] might be

effective in connecting with young voters.”24 A guide to youth voter organizing put

together by the George Washington University School of Political Management offers a

number of suggestions based on their research. They propose seeking young voters that

are not students “at major transportation centers, pedestrian thoroughfares, bars, concerts,

movie theatres, gas stations, festivals and city parks on weekend afternoons.”25 Friedrichs

discusses a “Hangouts and Homes” program, which is “a community contact (club, park),

Friedrichs, 2003.
Green & Gerber, 2001.
Green & Gerber, 2001.
Friedrichs, 2003.
Shea & Green, 2004.
The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Winning Young Voters: A
Guide to Youth Vote Organizing, 2005.

plus a door-to-door contact” that in his research “led to 3% to 7% higher turnout rates in

the treatment group.”26 He goes on to add “that this outreach found and significantly

mobilized voters that no other effort did.”27 Donald Green’s research supports Friedrich’s

results: “these findings suggest the importance of establishing pre-election contact with

young voters and of targeting Election Day reminders to those who are most receptive to

this type of message.”28 Heather Smith suggests that “when trying to reach young-people

off-campus, think about how they live. Site based canvassing at bars, clubs, concerts, gas

stations, laundromats, community centers, festivals, and churches allow for high contact

rates amongst critical groups of young voters.”29 The most effective strategy for making

contacts with young voters is to go to where the voters already are, and then use the

information collected from these contacts to build accurate lists of previously contacted


Peer-to-peer tactics employed by a youth mobilization campaign are more likely

to result in making an actual contact with a young voter, and therefore is more effective

in mobilizing young voters. The current research cites two dominant factors in the recent

increase in youth voter turnout: “a more engaged and involved Generation Y that is

entering the electorate and targeted field efforts that mobilized young voters.”30 Targeted

field efforts must continue to operate using these proven peer-to-peer strategies to build

upon this recent success.

Friedrichs, 2006.
Friedrichs, 2006.
Green, Donald P. The Effects of an Election Day Voter Mobilization Campaign Targeting Young Voters,
CIRCLE Working Paper 21, September 2004.
Smith, 2006.
Smith, 2006.

Why Youth Mobilization Campaigns Are Important to the Democratic Party

While many people within traditional political parties continue to think only of

short-sighted campaigns, an increasing number of researchers at political analysts are

acknowledging the importance of the youth voter demographic to future electoral


From GWU Winning Young Voters: A Guide to Youth Vote Organizing, 2005.

A large number of young voters have not determined their membership in either

the Democratic or Republican parties. According to the Kennedy School of Government

“young voters are highly independent. More than 4 out of 10 young voters decline to

identify themselves as a member of either major political party.”31 If young voters can be

contacted and mobilized to vote for Democratic candidates, it begins the process of

instilling party loyalty. “Reaching out to young voters today will help ensure their

political allegiance in future elections. Young people who vote for a particular party in

three elections in a row are highly likely to remain loyal to that party for life.”32

Nickerson’s research supports these claims as well. His conclusions are 1) “voting has

been shown to be habit forming” and 2) “if young people can be convinced to vote now,

voter turnout rates are likely to benefit for years to come.”33 Shea & Green believe

“astute political operatives will look at this group of potential voters with a keen eye –

especially if they are interested in the long-term success of their party.”34 The George

Washington University predicts “with the growing size and diversity of this population,

capturing the youth vote in the next 2-3 major elections could lead to control over the

electorate for decades.”35 Research shows that no other activity could have as important

an effect on the strength of the Democratic Party as youth mobilization campaigns that

build party loyalty and create life-long Democrats.

Some political activists are concerned that focusing on these long-term strategies,

however important, will hurt candidates and campaigns in the short-term. The research

shows that this is not the case. Heather Smith’s research indicates that “the political party

Kennedy School of Government, 2004.
Kennedy School of Government, 2004.
Nickerson, 2006.
Shea & Green, 2004.
GWU, 2005.

that wins the youth vote today will certainly win close elections in the short-run and lead

our country in the long-run” and youth mobilization campaigns “can make the difference

in a close race, while helping to build a political party for tomorrow.”36 The Kennedy

School warns that “candidates and campaigns should note that there is much to be gained

by attracting young voters and much to be lost by ignoring them, particularly in what

promises to be a close election.”37 Friedrichs’ analysis of the 2002 Michigan Youth

Coordinated Campaign was that “with a budget of under $55,000 it appears that the

campaign was able to design, implement and evaluate a highly cost effective mobilization

strategy…the Youth Coordinated Campaign clearly demonstrates that personalized field

tactics can be both low cost and high impact.”38

Another positive aspect of a youth mobilization effort that helps candidates and

campaigns in the short-term is the “spillover effects of door-to-door campaigns. Not only

do they raise turnout among the targeted population; they also increase turnout among

others in the household who come into contact with the campaign.”39 Friedrichs offers a

suggestion in his 2002 YCC analysis about a way to improve the efficiency of a door-to-

door youth targeted campaign while also helping a traditional campaign make the

contacts on their targeted list: “early synchronization with local campaigns, where staff

members use the Youth Coordinated Campaign to cover targeted precincts with young

voters.”40 The youth mobilization campaign finds a precinct that contains a high

percentage of the youth voters that they are targeting. In between the contacts for their

campaign they contact the targeted voters from the local campaigns list that live in

Smith, 2006.
Kennedy School of Government, 2004.
Friedrichs, 2003.
Green & Gerber, 2001.
Friedrichs, 2003.

households between their own contacts. The youth mobilization campaign is able to run

its own targeted program while helping the traditional campaign reach its contact goals.

This suggestion has been misinterpreted by some to mean that it is better for young

activists to stick to traditionally targeted campaigns instead of running a youth

mobilization effort. That is not the case. The youth mobilization campaign is only hitting

the traditional campaign’s targets when they fall within a precinct that is a target for their

youth campaign. If young activists do not engage in their own program the youth contacts

will not be made and the Democrats run the risk of losing those voters forever.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Youth mobilization efforts are extremely important for the future of the

Democratic Party. Since young voters are not successfully targeted by traditional

campaigns it is necessary for youth targeted campaigns to make these important contacts

and start the process of building party loyalty in the next generation of voters. Peer-to-

peer contact programs are supported by current research and provide Democrats with the

best way to mobilize young voters who are difficult to contact. The potential to build

lifetime party loyalty in what is an extremely large potential electorate is too great to let

go untapped, or worse, to go to the Republican Party.

• Young Democratic activists should engage in youth mobilization efforts

• Youth mobilization efforts should implement a strategy to overcome the difficulty

of contacting young voters as well as making personal peer-to-peer contacts

• Youth voters should be sought in areas where they are likely to congregate:

concerts, theaters, campuses, malls, events, etc.

• The Democratic Party message should be presented in terms that are pertinent to


• Youth mobilization campaigns should work with local traditional campaigns

when there is geographic overlap in door-to-door canvassing efforts

• The Democratic Party should begin the process of getting young voters in the

habit of voting and voting Democratically

• Organizations engaging in youth mobilization campaigns should work to grow in

size and strength to increase the scale of their outreach in order to have a greater


The views in this report are the views of the author only and do not necessarily reflect

the views of the Arizona Democratic Party or the Democratic National Committee.

© 2006 Kevin James Bondelli