Tuesday, April 01, 2008

the cycle of neglect has been broken

There's an editorial from Catherine Rampell in Sunday's Washington Post that says the efforts of nonpartisan youth voter engagement groups like Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself have, year after year, been a failure and that "the junior Senator from Illinois" (aka Barack Obama) has been the force we have all been waiting for to get young people to the polls.

No f*cking kidding -- except that I think there's more to it. Something had to happen to make it clear that it was worth it for the Obama team to try to engage those young voters.

Back in 2000, I was at the helm of one of those organizations: Rock the Vote (so, yes, I was feeling a bit defensive when I read the editorial). We did, as Rampell writes, try to increase the number of young people who turned out to vote by eliminating barriers to their participation and by suggesting that voting was a "subversive" activity ("Piss of a Politician. Vote." was one of the t-shirts our street teams were wearing that year). But we were also doing something else that Rampell neglects to acknowledge: we were trying to convince politicians and their campaign advisers to invest money in youth voter outreach and to speak to young voters by directly addressing issues that were relevant to their lives.

The Youth Vote Coalition -- which included leadership from Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, U.S. PIRG and the National Council of La Raza -- literally called on the candidates for the White House to dedicate a debate to address young voters (back in the day when there wasn't a debate every fifteen minutes). The idea was sh*t on by the Commission on Presidential Debates when their leadership dismissed our proposal with the response, "We can't dedicate a debate to every group that wants one. Left-handed flute players want their own debate."

(Literally. Left. Handed. Flute. Players.)

We KNEW that our organization's paltry budgets could not compare to the hundreds of millions of dollars that candidates were investing in reaching older, more reliable voters. We KNEW that, to create true, meaningful change and to get young people to vote, we were going to need to demonstrate to campaign advisers that it was worth it, that the cost of the youth vote wasn't too high for them to invest in. We KNEW that the "cycle of neglect" (young people ignoring the political process because the political process ignored them) would only be broken if a candidate stepped up to the plate and said to young people, "I want your vote." In the meantime, we made t-shirts and ads and we appeared on CNN and in the newspapers to remind the powers that be that young people were checking out and that a generational dismissal of the democratic process wasn't democracy at all.

Yes, Senator Obama has done a tremendous amount to bring young people out to the polls (which is due, in some part, to the tireless efforts of his director of youth voter outreach, a former Rock the Vote staffer, Hans Riemer). But, as I said up front, I think there's more to it. Other forces are in play that have made it possible for Obama to do what we were begging other candidates to do eight years ago.

Campaign strategists think about the cost per vote. Literally. How much does the campaign have to spend to get you to show up at polls and pull the lever in your favor? When the most effective media was television, it wasn't a good deal. Paying for ad time on shows that targeted 18-24 year olds was expensive and the ROI was low.

But today? The 2004 election -- which saw a increase in youth voter turnout -- demonstrated that young people were, post-9/11 and in the midst of the Iraq war, more confident that the question of who was sitting in the White House had some relevance to their lives. And they were voting Democrat.

In 2008, this bump in youth participation, coupled with the exponential decrease in the cost of reaching young voters because of the reach and engagement of social media, is what I think gave the Obama team the rationalization they needed to truly invest in young people, the incentive to break the cycle of neglect.

And then Obama brought the rest. But "the rest" that he brought would not, I believe, have been accomplished without social media. That sense of a national movement with unstoppable momentum? The over-capacity crowds at every stop? That's not television ads and direct mail, my friends. That's social networks. That's text messaging.

1) Young people needed to step up to do their part to break the cycle of neglect.

They did.

2) The cost of reaching young voters needed to decrease.

It did.

3) A candidate -- and his campaign -- needed to see the new ROI of investing in the youth vote.

He did.

And then he trusted this new media to not only reach young voters, but to engage them as well and to enable them to become evangelists for the cause.

Serendipity, folks. The cycle of neglect has been broken.


Samantha said...

I think the fact that the Obama campaign has given the youth a successful brand to rally around coupled with the accessibility of rallying via social media is a major factor.Social media reduces the difficulty in decision making down to mere clicks, Obama provides a message that is clear, concise, youth-centric, and positive. Overall the two factors make engaging easier than ever

abf said...

But they needed to be able to justify it financially. If the ROI wasn't right, the strategists wouldn't have invested in the way they did.