November 2014: Will youth sit out another midterm election?

In recent weeks, both the Democratic and Republican parties have engaged in last-ditch efforts to sway young voters in the 2014 mid-term elections—a fleeting, election year trend that, unfortunately, is nothing new in politics.

More than 20 million young Americans (ages 18-29) cast their vote in the last two presidential elections. Both in 2008 and in 2012, young people voted at a turnout rate of nearly 50 percent, and were a determining factor in electing and re-electing Barack Obama to the White House.

But 2010 was a different story, as Democrats lost the House and national youth turnout was 24%, on par with many previous midterm elections.

Often political parties and campaigns have funds to do more voter outreach than the great majority of civic organizations that promote democratic participation. While we’ve seen recent, national-level party outreach and messaging to youth, it may be too late for it to have a big influence on youth turnout in 2014. That is a missed opportunity, as young voters are poised to play a potentially key role in some hotly contested states.

In Alaska, for example, young people aged 18-29 make up more than a quarter of the population. In Colorado, youth voter turnout has been around 30 percent in the last four mid-term elections, higher than the turnout rate for youth nationally. Small projected margins of victory in competitive Congressional contests mean young voters could play a significant role.

However, it will take more than rhetoric and last-minute pleas to mobilize young people over the long term.

Young people are not a monolithic group; they are a diverse cross-section of the country, and political efforts must be equally diverse in order to appeal to their various ideological, cultural, and social perspectives. Just as past campaigns were crafty at aggressively targeting seniors, the same energy and thoughtful outreach is needed to attract young voters.

That strategic political approach is starting to happen, and efforts by both parties to court young voters at the national level are good for our democracy. Republicans, who lost the national youth vote in 2012 by 23 points (and much more in some states) are taking steps to try to reverse that trend. However, recent “last-minute” efforts by both Republicans and Democrats to connect with young voters have been a mixed bag.

The Republican National Committee had launched a “Campus Captains” program to reach college students across the country and the College Republican National Committee also recently launched targeted outreach to young women. And the Democratic National Committee has done campus outreach in Colorado where there are competitive House and Senate races underway, and issues faced by millennials are part of many talking points.

While these approaches may have garnered some media attention about each party’s commitment to the youth vote, merely “winning” news cycles about young voters is not the same as winning their actual votes over time. What captures youth voters is what captures every other kind of voter: building trust and consistency through steady investment, as prominent national youth organizer Biko Baker argued in 2010 and other youth organizers have argued since.

Our research at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), part of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, underscores Baker’s point.

After President Obama won young voters in 2008, we analyzed national survey data from 2010 to try to understand how 2008 influenced 2010. We found that a substantial proportion of registered young voters had simply not been mobilized. This kind of inconsistent investment shows up at the polls, when young people don’t.

Campaigns need to engage young people in a meaningful way that includes opportunities for youth to voice their opinions, interact with peers, and take an active role—concerted efforts and concrete opportunities for political engagement over time. These principles and best practices have been developed and used effectively for many years by youth organizations, and could prove invaluable to campaigns and committees who have the resources to implement them.

As we enter the final weeks of the mid-term election cycle, campaigns would do well to reach out to youth at the state and district level, and to develop a sustained and serious plan to reach out to them between elections. Otherwise, campaigns run the risk of leaving a crucial part of the electorate registered to vote, but sitting at home.