Harnessing the Youth Vote

Election '04

An emerging generation of young, progressive Democrats is networking, brainstorming, and organizing to fill a gap in liberal politics. Because the Democratic Party has long failed to harness their energy, these young people are trying – with the help of several new and extant organizations – to channel it themselves by tapping into their own resources and using the tools of their generation. Their goal? To help build a stronger base and revitalize the infrastructure that has left the party stagnant and struggling against conservative opponents.

Many of the major players in this developing movement were in Boston during last week's Democratic National Convention, and they had more than John Kerry on their minds. Like all Democrats, they know that winning the election this November is essential. These up-and-comers are staunch Kerry supporters, dedicated to getting George W. Bush out of office. But they have identified a weak spot in the party, and to fix it requires a much more farsighted approach than the next-election focus Democrats have held on to for years.

Long-term investment in the party's younger base, missing until now (at least in concentrated form), is a vital part of renovating the Democratic strategy, they say. And a well-organized infrastructure – nuts-and-bolts stuff like fundraising, media communication, candidate training, voter mobilization, and grassroots activism – is imperative to winning back not only the White House in 2004, but the House, the Senate, and state governments (Republicans control four more legislatures and six more governorships than Democrats do) over the next 15 to 20 years.

"The '90s was a period when the party really modernized our message," says New Democrat Network (NDN) president Simon Rosenberg, referring to the centrist rhetoric of the Clinton administration. "What's happening now is that we're modernizing our politics. It's going to make us stronger."
Rosenberg's organization is not a new one – the NDN has been around since the 1980s. Other groups, like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, also focus on revamping the party's inner workings. But in a May speech, Rosenberg acknowledged that to tackle the challenge comprehensively requires "a new generation of progressive leadership – entrepreneurs, investors, intellectuals, and political leaders."

A major problem, however, is that the Republicans have been cultivating the younger generation for years, which is how they managed to capture both houses of Congress and (for 16 of the past 24 years) the White House in the first place. The need for this strategy has its roots in the 1950s, when conservatives found themselves losing relevance, ground, and influence in the national debate. During the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the Nixon administration's Watergate crisis, Democrats held as many as 70 percent of the seats in the country's state legislatures; from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Around 30 years ago, however, GOP right-wingers kicked into high gear on a mission to grow their party, and they started small, focusing on state races and investing serious time and money.

"They were out of power for a really long time," Rosenberg says. "They set out in a very strategic way, in a very long time-horizon, to try to change the future of the country." He calls the conservative movement an "information-age Tammany Hall," a reference to the heavy-handed (and occasionally corrupt) Democratic political machine that dominated New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, "Democrats never did it," says Joe Trippi, the man behind former presidential candidate Howard Dean's rocket-like primary-campaign rise. Its failure to establish a young-voter-outreach organization has put the party at a disadvantage, he says. Now, however, technology has given liberals the chance to catch up by channeling the combined power of the Internet and the generation that grew up with it.

"If information is power and the Internet is distributing information democratically to anyone who has the 'Net, then the Internet is not distributing information anymore, it's distributing power," Trippi said at a DNC networking session for young progressives. "There is only one hope for our democracy, and I believe this fervently," he told the crowd of about 40 young professionals. "It's you and the 'Net."

But when that session broke up into small discussion groups focused on particular areas (such as fundraising, media, and grassroots training), and the young men and women started sharing ideas and strategies, it became clear that they didn't need to be told how valuable they are. "They've figured out if they want to change things, they have to participate – and they are," Trippi says.

Indeed, the ambitious leaders behind new organizations like 2020 Democrats, the Center for Progressive Leadership, the Campaign for a National Majority, and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century know what is missing from the party they support and what they can provide. Taken together, these groups address a broad spectrum of issues and counter similar efforts from the other side of the aisle. Their focus goes beyond the conventional young-activist age range of 18 to 24 to encompass people in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s. They're in college and graduate school, working their first jobs, starting families. And, at the convention last week, they showed up to offer their suggestions for a Democratic resurgence.

Take the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), created in 2003 to recruit and train what regional coordinator David Zipper, 26, calls progressive "change-makers" – a farm team of rising leaders ranging from candidates to campaign operatives. Many areas of the country have liberal activists and operatives who encourage potential candidates to run in municipal elections for city-council or school-board seats. Later in a candidate's career, the state Democratic Party itself, or outside organizations like the single-issue-oriented EMILY's List, will often support primary winners in larger elections. But the CPL has identified a gap during the time between those two races, says Zipper – the several years a progressive might spend "dabbling in politics, deciding if you want to be a candidate."

"We don't have any national leadership-development programs that are taking progressive leaders and providing them with the tools they need," Zipper says. The tools he's referring to – mentoring, help with fundraising, skill coaching – may seem like campaign common sense. But they are complicated, labor-intensive, and hard to come by. "That process of seasoning campaign staff ... is just extremely important and often overlooked," says Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based conservative think tank. "B-team" members who start young and build a base of political knowledge often grow up to be party leaders, she says, citing the Democrats' Terry McAuliffe or the Republicans' Ed Gillespie.

The Democrats, however, have done little to nurture budding talent. "We have not, as a party, focused on building a farm team," acknowledges 34-year-old Kelly Young, executive director of 21st Century Democrats, a group focused on giving candidates grassroots support to build name recognition and gain experience in running local campaigns. "Everyone is recognizing that what we've done in the past hasn't been enough."

The conservative Leadership Institute, on the other hand, has spent 23 years and millions of dollars developing those services. On its Web site, the Arlington, Virginia-based institute says its mission is "to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in the public policy process." The organization offers courses in areas like broadcast journalism, campus elections, or Internet activism, taught by activists like Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Republican senator Mitch McConnell. "[Conservatives] developed this when their back was against the wall," Zipper says. "We've never had our back against the wall until now." But today, it's "readily apparent how much ground we've lost."

One of the ways liberals hope to regain that ground is by following the conservative model of running and financially supporting candidates in local races. The Campaign for a National Majority (CNM), spearheaded by Harvard Law School students Michael Fertik and Daniel Richenthal, aims to accomplish just that – with the added bonus of involving young people in the process. The group began about a year and a half ago, when Fertik, 25, and Richenthal, 27, recognized the absence of Democratic efforts to reach out to young, professional liberals. When they tapped into their contacts from college, work, and law school, they ended up with a list of people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to get involved but didn't have the time to research candidates or the money to feel they were making a real difference. So, Fertik says, he and Richenthal decided to "find out where they can have impact with that smaller amount of money" – a message reminiscent of Howard Dean's "$100 revolution."

As a result, they've chosen two 2004 elections, one in Texas and one in Iowa, where they think fundraising help will make the most difference. Fertik estimates that CNM will raise several thousand dollars in bundled contributions from its young donors to disperse to the two candidates – David Leibowitz in Texas and Jeff Danielson in Iowa. Like the conservative Club for Growth, which advises potential donors on which candidates to support, CNM eliminates the time-consuming task of identifying where dollars can have the greatest impact. In 2006, Fertik hopes to raise $10,000; the goal is "not to get too big too fast" because "the way to be the most effective is to pick a limited number of candidates each time," and no race is too minor. With any luck, candidates who win will move up the pipeline to bigger things. "On both sides of the aisle, a lot of rising stars start at the state level," says Richenthal. Helping a candidate win a municipal election might not be that glamorous, Fertik admits, but "it'll be sexy" as soon as that candidate decides to run for governor or Congress and helps tip the power scale back toward Democrats.

It's easy to see how these new organizations fit together in a long-term pattern: In a few years, one could imagine candidates that have gone through leadership training at the Center for Progressive Leadership getting financial backing from the Campaign for a National Majority. The New Democrat Network and 21st Century Democrats have similar candidate-endorsement programs, while 2020 Democrats, a one-year-old group formed as a vehicle for young people to discuss and influence long-term party policies, is working to involve and promote new thinkers in the party. And that's not counting the many nonpartisan organizations aimed at increasing political participation. "The whole point is to bring in new people," Fertik says of the smorgasbord of organizations. "We're not staking out turf." Young, of 21st Century Democrats, agrees: "There really has been unprecedented levels of cooperation."

These efforts are complemented by updated voter-mobilization campaigns created to address a variety of concerns. When people start to vote, they tend to think of themselves as members of the party they vote for, Trippi points out. "These people are going to be involved for a long time." So it makes sense that several groups are starting to think creatively about reaching out to young voters. It makes even more sense when you look at statistics: According to the US Census Bureau, only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds and 50 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds voted in the last presidential election – the two worst showings among all demographic groups.

To counteract this trend, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party, the Young Democrats of America (YDA), is using a combination of strategies to reach as many people as possible. For less political voters, it holds club nights where DJs talk about issues and candidates; in swing states (YDA is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Wisconsin), it joined five other organizations to form the Youth Voter Alliance. All these groups concentrate their resources on increasing youth registration and turnout.

However, even the YDA admits that its party has somewhat neglected the youth element. "We're definitely far behind," admits Jane Fleming, the group's spokesman. The disparity has ranged from mentoring to fundraising – in 2002, the College Republicans had $4 million to spend on mobilization, compared to the YDA's $1 million.

"There's a mix of science and strategy," says Young. She emphasizes the "less sexy part of the process" (her organization makes sure to maintain contact with people in the period between registration and Election Day) that feeds into the rest of the pipeline – those who vote are more likely to become active in politics, and then to run for office, and so on. "It's a winning strategy," she says, noting that the Republicans' 1994 congressional takeover was really the result of grassroots efforts reaching back 15 years.

"We have the patience to watch change unfold over a long period of time," says Josh Green, co-founder of 2020 Democrats. The challenge of revitalizing the party, then, will be not just to make use of all new resources, both human and technological – youth energy, organizations, and the Internet – but also to dominate them, particularly the latter, to disseminate the Democratic message and bring more people into the fold. And there's no one better positioned to do so than young people – it's "their tool, their language," says Trippi.

"There's no question we have to build it," Rosenberg says of the party's overall structure. "I don't know exactly what it's going to look like in 10 to 15 years." But if things continue on their current trajectory, the party's horizon should stretch ever farther.

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