Increasingly Active Young Voters Are a Gift to Democrats

News & Politics

Democrats have been given a gift -- and for the most part -- they don't even know about it. While party regulars spent the 2004 elections courting "the base" -- worrying about the soccer moms and office park dads -- a large group of voters turned out for Democrats without the party's paying any attention to them at all.

This group was the only one to give a majority to John Kerry, and 73 percent of them are planning to vote this year. Who is this magical group? Young people. Despite years of neglect by the Democratic Party, this new generation of young voters actually likes us. In fact, they are more progressive than any other age group.

Yet most Democratic campaigns spend next to nothing reaching out to young people. They pass over this receptive voting bloc because outdated conventional wisdom says that young people don't vote and it's a waste of time and money to try to target them. In fact, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence -- that 18- to 30-year-olds do and will vote for Democrats -- the most recent polling memo from Democracy Corps does not even mention reaching out to young voters at all, and less than 10 percent of the poll sample was under the age of 30.

In 2004, several outside groups ignored the advice of the Washington establishment and made young voters a priority. The results: 18- to 30-year-olds were the only age group to vote for John Kerry and turned out in the largest numbers since 1992. And then in 2005, a few outside groups attempted to turn young people out for Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia and it worked again. But this time, the effort was large enough to help push the candidate past 50 percent plus one.

It occurs to me that we might be on to something here. We might have an actual strategy for returning Democrats to a majority party that depends on something other than trying to swing a few evangelicals and trying to win on a message that consists of little more than "we're not them."

Here's why Democrats would be smart to invest in young people:

1. They actually like us. This is the only age group that voted for Kerry.

2. They will vote if we reach out to them effectively. Young people had the largest increase in voter participation of any age group in 2004.

3. There are a lot of them -- 60 million to 70 million. This generation is almost as large as the Baby Boomers.

4. This is most diverse generation ever in America. One in three is a racial minority.

5. We keep losing when we write young people off. Democrats have to try something new if we expect a different result.

The numbers alone make it clear that this group could not only make an electoral difference immediately, but -- more important -- losing them now could mean losing them for the rest of their lives.

We decided that getting young people involved, aware and persuaded would be the best long- and short-term investment we could make. Nearly every Washington insider who came through our office told us we were wasting our money because young people don't vote and when they do it is for Republicans. Worse, we were accused of being dangerous for drawing money from allegedly proven programs to the ones that are way too risky.

Rather than allowing this sort of thinking to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, we chose to ignore this advice and invest in things we thought had the chance of working. That has turned out to be our smartest political decision yet. Our investment in young people delivered the greatest bang for the buck of any political investment we have ever made.

So now that the numbers are in, why isn't the DNC making a major investment in young people? Why does College Democrats continue to have a budget so small that it can't support more than a couple staff people? Does the Democratic Party know of another untapped, massive progressive voting bloc that we could mobilize?

If you look at how Howard Dean is spending his time, I'd have to guess he thinks evangelicals are the key for Democrats. To that I say good luck, and let me know how it went for you in December 2006 when we may be wondering why voters abandoned the Democrats again in the final months of the campaign. Then, I will once again suggest that it might be easier and more effective to turn out young people who actually agree with us than to change an evangelical's mind.

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