When the numbers were released in North Carolina, they showed that almost half of voters under 25 years old didn’t vote and over 40% of voters aged 26-40 stayed home. Hunter Buxton, executive director of First Vote NC, notes that more than 40% of the 18-25 year olds aren’t even registered. As Buxton rightly says, we need a massive education program to educate and encourage young people to vote.
For Democrats, the numbers should be especially alarming. Their coalition depends on young people showing up at the polls. In 2008, the last time Democrats made big gains in North Carolina, more than 60% of young voters showed up. In the eight years since, that percentage has dropped to 53%. Democrats will have a hard time winning if those numbers continue to fall.
In off-year elections the numbers are even worse—much worse. In 2014, only 18% of voters aged 18-25 showed up at the polls and that’s up from 15% in 2010. If Democrats hope to make inroads into Republican majorities in the legislature and Congress in 2018, they’ll have to make some changes.
The first thing Democrats can do is start to talk to these younger voters. Since the mid-1990s, Democratic caucus organizations have relied almost exclusively on direct mail and television to reach voters. In doing so they’re ignoring one of their core constituencies. Young people aren’t watching television and aren’t believing the junk mail in their mailboxes.
According a former caucus director, caucus organizations and their media and mail consultants urge campaigns to stay away from spending money on social media campaigns and online communications. They argue that the money needs to be saved for mail and television in September and October.
I heard similar arguments in 2015 from organizations that work with legislative campaigns. They maintain that the caucus programs have been successful and most legislative campaigns are won in the final months of the election. Besides, they say, young people don’t vote anyway.
That’s an outdated strategy that’s failed Democrats for years. Now’s the time to revise it. Really, what have they got to lose? They won’t win until they have a reliable coalition and younger voters should be part of it.
But using direct mail and television ads to reach younger voters won’t work. They are the most media savvy generation in history. They are already creating their own ads in the form of videos they share on Youtube and other social media platforms. The memes they create and post are the electronic version of direct mail pieces. Campaigns need to figure out how to get into their conversations instead of trying to force feed young people information on media platforms they aren’t using and sending messages they aren’t buying.
Democrats have a lot of work to do if they hope to gain control of state legislatures or Congress. Updating and revamping their political machinery is critical to their success. In the midst of a technological and communications revolution, they’re using strategies and tactics based in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, with limited communications outlets, they could force feed people information in a short amount of time. Today, communication is more about relationships and recommendations. Democrats need to adapt if they hope to compete.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant.