Primary election stats suggest GOP youth-voter catastrophe will continue

Low turnout among youth voters for the Republican Super Tuesday primary contests suggests the GOP is making a major strategy misstep this year, analysts told the Colorado Independent. They said that Republican campaign messages to young people are mostly absent, weak or a turn-off and they called youth outreach efforts uninspired. They said the party looks to be continuing a disastrous trend sure to be exploited in the general election by President Obama, the man whose candidacy drew out young people as voters and volunteers in record numbers in 2008.

According to the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), only 5 percent of eligible voters under the age of 30 cast ballots in seven of Tuesday’s contests.

Working from exit polls, CIRCLE found that young voters in Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia distributed their support fairly evenly among the top three candidates. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney each garnered 88,000 votes. Rick Santorum pulled down 86,000 votes and Newt Gingrich trailed with 43,000 votes.

Although comparison with statistics from past years is of limited value because turnout is tied to a host of factors, like what time of year the contest are being held and whether or not there’s a parallel primary being held among Democrats, Tufts researchers say turnout this year is low.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine said the numbers demonstrate that, for young people, it’s a close race but not a very thrilling one.

“Republicans have some work to do to build youth support,” he wrote in a release.

Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE youth coordinator and researcher, told the Colorado Independent that the underwhelming youth-voter stats should be viewed as a warning sign, not only for the 2012 presidential election, but also for future elections.

“Are the candidates making an effort to get young people to participate? Are they speaking to youth? I see very little of it. Yet research shows that, if you reach out to young people, they vote. It’s a big mistake to write off young people. Behavioral habits in politics develop early. That’s when people form their civic political identities.”

A yawning gap

“There’s enormous opportunity for Republicans. Youth turnout was high in 2008, but not across the board: white youth voters, not so much, and lots of red-state youth didn’t vote. Republicans can play a role in closing the enthusiasm gap.”

In the last three general elections, Democratic presidential candidates have won the majority of the youth vote, and in all three elections voters under 30 have been the party’s most supportive age group. That advantage reached new heights in the 2008 Obama-McCain election. According to the Pew Foundation, Obama won 66 percent of the youth demographic, a disparity in support separating young people from any other voting demographic unrivaled in the 40 years Pew has been conducting exit polls.

Pew analysts call what’s happening a generational shift without precedent. In a post-2008 election piece, the organization reported that a 19-point gap among youth voters yawns between Democrats and Republicans. Specifically, 45 percent of people under 30 said they were Democrats and 26 percent said they were Republicans. What’s more, that gap has opened fast. In 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore, party affiliation was evenly split.

Kiesa acknowledges that there have been pockets of enthusiasm on the Republican side this year tied to Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose libertarian views have traditionally appealed to young people. The larger problem remains, however, she said, pointing out that, despite fairly intense college campus support, Paul has yet to even significantly push ahead of Romney in votes cast among young participants overall.

It’s also an open question whether Paul voters will back any other Republican in the increasingly likely event that he fails to win the party’s general-election nomination.

“Some Paul supporters will move over, but I think most probably won’t,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of youth politics group New Era Colorado. “Young people are frustrated with politics and Paul is saying something different. He’s being honest and shaking things up. That appeals. But that’s a generalized feeling that doesn’t always translate when you’re talking about governing particulars or a [party] platform. I think a lot of [Paul supporters] will sit it out and others will vote for Obama– and that’s because the Obama campaign will court them.”

Take away the blip in enthusiasm being generated by Paul, and the GOP youth-voter problem this year seems even more grave. Fenberg sees the issue as a matter of priorities reflected in campaign infrastructure.

“People think 2008 was an amazing year [for youth-voter turnout] because of Obama– that young people suddenly woke up and voted just because of Obama. The trick, though, was that the Obama campaign invested millions of dollars on the youth vote. There was enormous focus on that. The GOP won’t court young people. I wish they would, but I don’t see it. I don’t see them spending the money it will take to turn out the vote.”

The mobilized mobilizing

Fenberg is referencing mechanics tied to election-campaign ground games that the researchers at Pew and scholars like University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket have explored in depth since 2008. Young people didn’t just vote for Obama, they were also unusually active in his campaign. Nearly 30 percent said they attended at least one campaign event that year, which was very likely the result of hardcore online and offline efforts carried out to mobilize supporters. Those mobilized supporters mobilized more supporters.

All told, the McCain campaign opened fewer than 400 field offices. The Obama campaign opened more than 700, many of them in battleground states. Obama opened field offices in 43 percent of counties in eleven swing states. Masket, in his 2009 study of the Obama ground game, found that Colorado counties with an Obama office saw at least a three-point increase in Democratic vote totals.

In Colorado and the other battleground states, Pew found that young people were contacted in much greater numbers by the Obama campaign than were contacted by the McCain campaign. Battleground youth voters were also more likely to be contacted than were older battleground voters, which Pew reported was a “significant reversal from past patterns.”

Nationally, the Obama campaign contacted 25 percent of young voters whereas the McCain campaign contacted 13 percent, that disparity another departure from the past: In 2004, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns reached out to young people in nearly the same percentages. In a few key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida and Indiana, the percentage of young voters contacted by the Obama campaign reached up to 50 percent and 60 percent, doubling and tripling McCain campaign efforts and notching some of Obama’s biggest and/or most significant point spreads on Election Night.

Kiesa agrees with Fenberg that GOP strategists don’t seem to have properly studied the 2008 voting statistics.

“There’s enormous opportunity for Republicans,” she said. “Youth turnout was high, but not across the board: white youth voters, not so much, and lots of red-state youth didn’t vote. Republicans can play a role in closing the enthusiasm gap.”

MTV Mitt

If Republicans are going to do that, Kiesa said that perhaps a good way to start would be to retool their youth message. Right now, the main topic the candidates talk about with young people is the national debt.

“I did see Romney take a question from MTV last week,” she said. “It was the debt [again], how it hangs over young people’s future.”

Fenberg notes that young people are disproportionately plagued by thin job opportunities in the recovery and so they care deeply about the economy. He said that talking about expanding job opportunities for young people is different than talking about the national debt.

“The debt argument, you get the feeling when young people mention it, they’re just saying that because it has entered the echo chamber. I don’t think it’s an issue that keeps young people up at night. The national debt is wonky.

“So far, I just don’t hear a message that will resonate,” he said. “On the social issues– tolerance, reproductive rights– [the candidates] are not in line with what young people think. The low turnout [on Super Tuesday] doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t think this primary has been a conversation that appeals to young people.”

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |

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