What the Youth Vote Actually Looks Like
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in a U.S. presidential election that will be won at the margins, neither candidate can afford to ignore the youth vote.
Too often, pundits frame the “youth vote” as some monolithic group. But when thinking about young liberal voters, there are actually four subcultures, according to a focus group launched by the progressive advocacy group NextGen America in April.
They are the “OK, Bidens,” who are reluctantly supportive of former Vice President Joe Biden. The “Wait and Sees,” who are still skeptical but may be convinced. The “Third-Party Defector Risks,” those who could make a protest vote for another candidate, possibly from a third party or as a write-in, as many did for Ralph Nader in 2000. And, lastly, the “Bernie-to-Trumps,” a thin tier of voters who may swing from Sanders, a Democratic socialist to the Republican president.
It’s worth reflecting on those voters and how liberal groups and tech companies are seeking to mobilize them ahead of this year’s election — particularly as the threat of voter suppression looms over the discourse. Below are trends to consider.
An Overview of Presidential Support
Biden started out with a narrow lead, and steadily dipped in the youth tally. Meanwhile, Sanders soared to lock down the young votes, until Super Tuesday forced him out of the race, leaving a large pack of Bernie youths in limbo. Trump’s youth support, while sparse, hasn’t budged, even as national polls have seen his support dip.
Biden’s team is plotting a digital comeback.
Meanwhile, the national student voting rate surged from 19 percent in the 2014 midterm elections to 40 percent in 2018, according to Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education. Historically, voting has increased in presidential years: Among voters ages 18 to 29, voting rates rise anywhere from 15 to 25 percentage points in a presidential year versus midterms.
The Battle for Social Supremacy
The digital battle so far has favored Trump, who, between Instagram and Twitter, has a 90-million-follower lead over Biden. But on June 3, Snapchat announced it would stop featuring Trump content on the platform’s Discover page, a blow considering that Trump was much more active on the platform than his Democratic opponent.
Biden’s team is now plotting a digital comeback. Biden Deputy Press Secretary Matt Hill has noted that their “small but mighty team” is in a scale-up phase, adding digital brainpower from the Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren campaigns. And, on May 26, Biden’s team launched League 46. Led by senior adviser Symone Sanders, the project is the campaign’s proposed antidote to slumping enthusiasm and subpar engagement with young people, and it’s tapping young professionals, students and officeholders as “local validators” to blast Biden’s message through their spheres of influence.
While campaigns scramble to make social media work for them, tech companies are blueprinting ways to get young people to the polls, especially as COVID-19 throws voting protocol into flux.
TurboVote and Snapchat are working to solve America’s youth registration epidemic. TurboVote has partnered with colleges to integrate voter registration into the process of registering for classes. Meanwhile, Snapchat has launched its “18th Birthday” project, sending users a digital birthday card that helps them register to vote. More than 300,000 Snapchat users turn 18 each month, and the platform has already partnered with TurboVote to sign up at least 450,000 people. The effort is a technological version that mimics the dream of automatic voter registration, a policy proposal that has largely stalled nationwide.
Alex Butcher-Nesbitt, deputy press secretary for the youth civic advocacy group NextGen America, says the coronavirus has shifted digital outreach since voters are spending more time online during the pandemic. “Now it’s TikTok or Animal Crossing,” he says.
Austin Smith has a happy-warrior vibe: chipper and upbeat, despite organizing in the middle of a pandemic. He is the national field director for Turning Point Action, the 501(c)(4) political action wing of brash conservative organization Turning Point USA. It mobilizes young conservatives on campus with slogans like “Socialism sucks” and “Taxation is theft.”
Smith sees the youth vote the way a starting pitcher sees his team’s offense: He doesn’t need to score millions of runs, just enough in the right places for his team to win. “We don’t have to convince every single student on campus to vote for the president. We just have to get enough to move that dial a little bit,” he explains.
Cristina Smith (no relation to Austin) was a firm Sanders supporter in the primary; she also volunteered for the Vermont senator in 2016. “I kind of grew into politics with Bernie Sanders,” says the chair of the Michigan Federation of College Democrats. For her, Biden represents “pre-2016” America, whereas Sanders represents new heights of progressivism. “For a lot of first-timers, it’s kind of hard to say goodbye to that,” Smith says, adding that she will vote for Biden in November.
Voting procedures are fluid and campus polling places may not be as effective without many students on campus. What’s clear though is that young voters will pivot to novel strategies. And some are willing to go to extremes to advance their cause if universities shift fully to teleclasses.
Chloe Stoddard, a Stanford student who backed Elizabeth Warren before Biden, imagines moving to Washington with some of her California classmates. “We could rent a house in D.C. and then maybe work with a campaign,” she says.
When pressed to elaborate on how she thinks she can best drive youth voting in November, she opted to leave room for evolving circumstances.
“We’ll see,” Stoddard replied. “It all really depends.”
Cyrus Beschloss is Founder of College Reaction, which tracks student opinions nationwide.