BOSTON — As music mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, trash-talk-show host Jerry Springer and Teresa Heinz Kerry were addressing a raucous crowd of youngsters in Boston’s Veterans Auditorium last Thursday, a small group of political operatives huddled in a classroom across town at Simmons College to talk shop with a Yale University professor.
The two scenes could not have been more different. Yet both gatherings were concentrated on a singular mission: getting the youths of “Generation Y” to the polls.
There is little doubt that when it comes to getting out the vote, the nation’s crowd of 18- to 24-year-olds may be the toughest demographic to mobilize in an election year.
While an estimated 25 million 18- to 24-year-olds will be eligible to vote this November — enough to make “Generation Y” the largest generation of potential voters since the baby boomers — the turnout rate for 18- to 24-year-olds dipped to its lowest level ever in 2000, when less than 35 percent of eligible voters decided to cast their ballot.
“Consultants will say youth is a low-turnout population. They will infer from that that therefore it will not pay to try to mobilize those groups,” Donald Green, a professor of political science at Yale University and co-author of the recent book “Get Out The Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout!” told the audience at the Simmons College event.
Rachel Leed, a communications expert with the D.C.-based firm Spitfire Strategies and an expert youth-turnout operations, says that consultants and campaign officials are the very people who need to be involved in the effort.
“In the past with youth politics, the effort was in reaching out to young people. Now, it’s really about reaching out to candidates and consultants,” Leed explained.
To that end, Leed and several groups are working closely with campaigns and candidates at all levels to raise their awareness about the right ways — and the wrong ways — to reach out to younger voting-age populations.
For instance, Leed says there is a “myth that the Internet is a silver bullet to reach out to youth voters.”
“It’s not,” she says — at least not in isolation.
Internet campaigning is “merely one good way to reach some selected young adults and potentially a poor way to contact most of them,” concluded the Campaign for Young Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works with candidates and political organizations to help encourage voting and civic participation among young people. Such methods’ effectiveness really depends on the audience one is trying to reach, the group found.
Survey research by two polling firms, Lake Snell Perry & Associates and the Tarrance Group, found that Internet techniques work better when seeking to engage partisans and ideologues during the primary season. But the same approach will have the least effect if a campaign is attempting to reach out to independents, moderates, infrequent churchgoers and those who are not college-educated.
Moreover, while star-studded events like the ones in Boston last week are good for stimulating some interest in the political process, celebrities alone apparently do not boost voter turnout.
Activists intimately involved in the get-out-the-vote efforts among young people insist that one-on-one, face-to-face contact is the best way to woo young voters.
“Our argument is that local face, local message is what engages young voters in politics,” said Ryan Friedrichs, the 27-year-old campaign director for the Young Voter Alliance. “If Congressional campaigns and Senate campaigns can deliver a local face and a local message to a young person’s door Talk about something that really resonates in their life,” they will be more effective.
Throughout the 1990s, he said, “you’ve seen radio and TV campaigns trying to use star power alone to turn out the young vote. You kind of need both. You need the person on the television to get their attention, make it cool. Then you need to follow up on the ground, knocking on the door.”
Friedrichs said that in addition to reaching out to young voters in the places they hang out — whether that’s in skate parks or beauty salons — it is important to talk to them about the issues that affect them.
“They’re so over-marketed as a young generation already. To reach them you need to use other young people and use messages tailored to them,” Friedrichs said, explaining that topics like prescription drug coverage under Medicare aren’t likely to interest Generation Y.
“Talk about something that really resonates in their life. Eighty-three percent of the military personal are under the age of 35, and 30 percent of [young voters] are uninsured.”
Caitie Searfoss, an 18-year-old from Michigan who is set to matriculate at Ohio State University this fall, agrees with Friedrich’s take, arguing that the campaigns need to better target issues that matter to young voters.
“When you’re 18, you’re going into college — this is a whole new experience,” Searfoss said. “You want to hear about things that will matter to you. They’re talking about the war in Iraq … then they’ll talk about Social Security, which deals more with older generations.”
Searfoss said she’d like to hear the candidates talking about the cost of higher education — an issue that hits home for her and her friends who are struggling with the costs of college and wondering how they’re going to pay for it.
The Ohio State freshman, who plans to cast her first vote this fall, said she also believes young adults would welcome more information about the actual process of a voting, which can be daunting to some first-timers.
“It is a little bit intimidating … We can work all these computers that our parents don’t understand, and we don’t know how to vote,” Searfoss said.
That is something Green said he and his colleagues are looking at.
Green spoke of an ongoing school-based pilot study in which high school seniors are given instructional how-to-vote seminars, complete with an on-hands demonstration of how the voting equipment is operated.
Compared to control groups of students who were not shown how to vote, turnout spiked by 15 percent to 16 percent among those given instruction.
As students are learning how to vote, the Campaign for Young Voters is training campaigns and candidates hot to engage young voters in the campaign process.
The non-profit, non-partisan effort, run by former Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), has posted an online “Toolkit for Candidates” with everything from sample scripts for radio ads to examples of direct-mail pieces that reach out to young voters.