Forging the Ties that Bind: Reaching Out to the MySpace Generation
by Anna Greenberg and Amy Gershkoff
In the wake of the 2006 elections, advocates for youth engagement trumpeted the increase in turnout among young voters: voters under 30 years of age turned out in higher rates than 2002, making it the second election in a row with increased turnout among the younger voters. Oddly, fewer commented on the fact that Democrats made an incredibly strong showing among these voters, winning 60 percent of their vote.1 This result was 6 points higher than John Kerry's share of the vote (54 percent), and the highest for Democrats in a House election in more than a decade.2
Democrats should feel good about this result, though it is not clear that it had much to do with a systematic, national Democratic outreach effort.3 Most of the contact with young voters (and potential voters) came from non-partisan, non-profit organizations who worked out in the field, registering young people and getting them to the polls. Moreover, there are long-term trends, such as the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of young people, and short-term events, such as the war in Iraq, that may explain much of the growing Democratic trend.
Of course, it would be easy to just accept that we have a new generation of reliable Democratic voters and leave them to their own devices. As much of the early research on political behavior shows, partisanship remains relatively stable over the course of people's lives.4 But this laissez faire approach does not grapple with the fact that despite Democratic voting proclivities, young voters are relatively disconnected from the Party; their support for Democrats does not come from a sense that the Democratic Party has delivered anything meaningful to their generation or that the Democratic Party's policies perfectly reflect their issue agenda (e.g., a majority of young voters favor privatization of Social Security). In fact, the Democratic Party is not significantly better positioned than the Republican Party among younger voters.
Some of this disconnection reflects a larger cynicism about conventional politics, and there are limits to what any party or candidate can do when addressing the mood of a generation. At the same time, outreach to younger people that reaches them where they are, addresses and produces on the issues they care about, and approaches them in a style they can relate to, could go a long way towards forging a significant and lifelong relationship.
The Clinton Generation
In 2006, young voters supported Democrats by a larger margin than any other age cohort. This showing builds on an earlier increase in the early 1990s. Certainly there have been low moments for Democrats among younger voters in big GOP years such as 1994 and 2002. Moreover, third-party candidate Ralph Nader diminished the Democratic margin in 2000. Regardless, it is hard to dispute that since Bill Clinton's first election, young voters have been solidly in the Democratic column.
While there are short-term factors (e.g., the war in Iraq) that impacted younger voters in 2004 and 2006, there are larger demographic trends that drive the recent Democratic character of younger voters. First, Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most racially diverse cohort in the country with only 62 percent identifying as white, 14 percent identifying as African American, 18 percent identifying as Hispanic and 5 percent identifying as Asian American.7 In contrast, in 1968, 88 percent of young people called themselves white.8 Non-white Americans continue to more strongly support Democrats than Republicans, and given the movement of Hispanic voters to the Democratic Party in 2006, this pattern is not likely to change.
Second, changes in family structure have profound political consequences. As the divorce and single parenthood rates rise, fewer and fewer children are growing up in "nuclear" families. In 1960, 88 percent of children under the age of 18 lived in a household with two married parents; in 2005, this number had declined to 67 percent.9 Because of increasing divorce rates and childbirth outside marriage, close to half of children will live in a single-parent household at some point before the age of 18.10 As we reported in our Youth Monitor research, young people growing up in "non-traditional homes" are more likely to support Democratic candidates--67 percent of young people growing up in homes with divorced, separated or unmarried parents voted for John Kerry in 2004, compared to only 49 percent of young people in homes with married parents. Young people growing up with divorced, separated or unmarried parents also have more progressive attitudes on social issues, such as gay marriage: 66 percent of young adults who grow up in non-traditional homes support gay marriage, compared to only 53 percent who grow up in traditional homes.11
Moreover, an increasing number of younger people are delaying marriage themselves. Forty years ago, nearly half of all adults under age 25 were married; today the number is just over 15 percent.12 There are huge political differences between married and unmarried Americans, with more than 60 percent of unmarried voters casting their votes for Democratic candidates in 2006 (compared to 48 percent among married voters),13 and with unmarried voters giving Democratic candidates more than a 20-point margin in every presidential election for nearly 20 years.14
The Bush Moment, Passed
Even with these long-term trends in place, there was a Bush moment--September 11th. It was a traumatic experience for everyone, but this cohort grew up in a post-Cold War period of peace and prosperity. They struggled to make sense of the attack; they were ready to listen--to gain an understanding of the larger meaning of the attack and what it means to be an American. This cohort was open--as many were--to hear what vision President Bush had to offer. In fact, despite strong Democratic trends in the 1990s, young voters split their votes evenly between the parties in 2002.
On the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, 79 percent of college students supported taking military action there, with 68 percent supporting the use of ground troops. College students registered high levels of trust in the military (75 percent) and the president (69 percent.)15 Young people were also initially supportive of the war in Iraq: right before the invasion, 72 percent supported the invasion.16
In the past three years, we have witnessed a dramatic shift, with young people now offering among the most negative views about the war in Iraq: 62 percent disapprove of the war in Iraq, with 43 percent disapproving strongly. In contrast, 56 percent of all voters disapprove of the war.17 A Pew Research Center report shows 54 percent of Americans under 30 want to bring the troops home 'as soon as possible,' compared to only 44-46 percent of adults in all other age groups.18 College students' trust in the president has dropped to only 31 percent, and 59 percent would give the president a grade of "D" or an "F" on his handling of the Iraq war.19 Voters under 30 are also more likely than any other cohort to report that they know someone currently serving or who recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan, which undoubtedly contributes to their souring views about our engagement in that conflict.20
The war in Iraq was the number one issue in this past election for younger voters, as it was for the rest of the electorate. But their rejection of the Republicans also reflected real concerns about their economic security: 23 percent of voters under 30 cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote, outpacing mentions of any other issue except Iraq (27 percent). Contrast these numbers with those of the electorate at large, among whom only 14 percent cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote.21
Unlike their older counterparts who worry about retirement security and prescription drugs (54 percent of seniors cite this as their top economic concern), younger voters are more concerned about having salaries that keep up with the cost of living (37 percent).23 Younger adults not only worry about having a well-paying job, but also about having one that they like and that is secure: 16 percent cite career advancement, job security, and job satisfaction as the most important problem in their lives today, compared to only 6 percent of adults over the age of 25.24
Republicans also lost with younger voters on other issues such as the environment: nearly half of younger voters said their biggest doubt about the Republican Congressional candidate was that he or she would do nothing about oil companies and gas prices, compared to only 28 percent of voters overall.25 Younger voters may be the 'Greenest Generation': 83 percent support government investment in alternative energy, far outpacing interest in this issue by other cohorts.26
I'll Vote for You, but Don't Call me a Democrat
In spite of these short- and long-term drivers, younger voters are actually not solidly Democratic nor do they have a uniformly progressive worldview. Young voters' trend towards Democratic voting ought to be matched--at least in part--with a trend towards Democratic partisan identification; instead, the percentage of younger voters identifying as Independents has increased.27
While changes in partisan identification often take many years to catch up with trends in voting behavior, opinions about the parties themselves are more responsive, showing changes in underlying attitudes about the parties before they appear in partisanship. On the eve of the 2006 election, barely 40 percent of younger voters had a positive view of the Democratic Party (35 percent negative), the same percentage that had a positive view of the Republican Party, despite the fact that younger voters gave Democratic Congressional candidates a 22-point advantage in the vote.28
In fact, younger voters are more likely than older voters to say that they see "no real differences" between the parties (41 percent of voters under 30, compared to 29 percent of voters overall)29 . They are no more likely to think Democrats will fight corruption (46 percent) as Republicans (50 percent), and they believe neither party will fight corruption particularly well.30
While younger people are on the left side of American politics, younger voters do not harbor monolithically progressive or liberal values. Unlike previous generations, Generation Y does not fit neatly into the uni-dimensional liberal-conservative political spectrum. Instead, this generation has liberal views on some issues and holds conservative positions on others, accumulating views like so many MySpace friends and producing an "ideology" with some important contradictions.
Younger people, for instance, are the strongest supporters of gay marriage, but they are no more likely to support abortion rights than older people. (In fact, Baby Boom women are the most supportive of a woman's right to choose).31 In general, younger people favor an expanded rather than limited role for government, but they hold decidedly non-progressive values on some specific economic issues, including privatization of Social Security (74 percent of young adults support privatization, compared to 41 percent of adults over the age of 60).32 In keeping with the racial diversity of this cohort, they have quite liberal views on immigration, and interracial marriage is decidedly non-controversial, but they also harbor reservations about the feminist movement.
Communicating with the "MySpace" Generation
Neither of the two major political parties as they are currently constituted offers a bundle of issue positions that neatly fits younger Americans' worldview. But perhaps even more importantly, neither of the major parties has figured out how to communicate with young people in terms of medium, content, or style.
The two major parties continue to broadcast their messages through channels that younger Americans do not utilize. Unlike their older counterparts, younger adults do not regularly watch network television news. Among younger adults that do watch network television, many are likely to be among the growing number of households (now 23 percent nationwide) that has a TiVo or other Digital Video Recorder, meaning that even if they watch network television, they are not watching the political advertisements. They tend not to subscribe to or read daily newspapers. Many do not have a landline telephone and many move frequently, making direct voter contact over the phone or at the door difficult.33
For this generation, the Internet plays an unprecedented role in the acquisition of political information. The most recent Pew survey finds that 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reported getting their news from the Internet.34 During the 2004 elections, half of voters under 30 used the Internet to find candidates' positions on the issues, nearly 40 percent watched video clips of the candidates online, and 1 in 4 voters under 30 looked up information about the candidates' voting records and endorsements online. Blogs have increasingly become a source of information for this generation, with 16 percent reporting that they got their political news from blogs during the 2004 election.35 Younger Americans also access the Internet from devices other than computers: 13 percent of adults under 30--and 19 percent of adult males under 30--get their news from their PDAs, mobile phones, or Blackberries.36
Perhaps in part because they do not know what medium to use, the two major parties communicate less frequently with younger voters than they do with the rest of the electorate. Younger voters were the least likely of any age cohort to report being contacted by either of the major parties during the 2004 presidential campaign.37 Younger voters' mobility certainly impedes campaigns' ability to contact them, as does the high percentage of cell-phone-only households, which makes contact by phone difficult and expensive at best, and unattainable at worst.
Even when the parties get the medium right and are able to reach these mobile voters, the Democratic Party sometimes misses the mark on the message. The issues emphasized during recent campaigns tend to concern older voters, such as Medicare and Social Security, while younger voters' issues are less prominent or not addressed from their perspective. For instance, while young people have deep economic anxieties, they are more focused on wages and finding a career path than on healthcare costs. While younger voters are concerned about the quality of public education (and have experienced it more recently than other voters), they care equally about paying for a college education and debt. There is also the possibility of targeting communication to younger voters around their socially progressive values, something that Democrats currently avoid in reaching out to voters more broadly. For example, this cohort sees diversity as inherently valuable and is reviled by the exclusionary and extremist rhetoric of the far right.
Finally, even when the parties get the medium and the message right, they often get the style wrong. Younger voters don't want to be "hyped" or "played," and many adults in this generation see both parties as inauthentic. Their aversion to the style that both parties currently espouse may explain, in part, why Independent candidates like Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, and Ralph Nader garnered such support from younger voters. These candidates appeared to be more authentic, less corrupt, and outside the traditional political establishment, all of which found favor with this generation.
Forging ties with a new generation of Democrats
If Democrats want to forge a stronger set of ties to younger voters, they need to think about making a major investment in understanding Generation Y and to develop respectful and authentic strategies for reaching them. There are a number of places to start--in no particular order:
- We know how young people feel about different issues--they hate the war in Iraq, care about the environment, want government to help people, and want improved public education--but is there a core set of values that defines Generation Y? What divides younger people--and are they the same issues that divide older people--and what brings them together? Is there a core identity for this generation that moves beyond the individualism and atomization that characterizes much of this cohort's experience?
- We need to map how young people see themselves politically, allowing for the possibility that their often apolitical or anti-political orientation can still have political consequences. Volunteerism, which is high for this generation, is a critical part of their self-identity, and young people are finding ways to connect to community outside of traditional institutions. For example, younger people are more likely than older people to boycott products if associated with bad labor practices or detrimental environmental impact. Is it possible to harness this energy into more traditional or partisan politics or do Democrats need to think about a new kind of politics?
- Younger people are voracious consumers of pop culture, but what exactly do they learn from it? Is it nothing but the "market" working, or are younger people potentially exposed to a progressive set of values though music or movies? The Democratic Party and its candidates often draw upon celebrities to reach out to younger audiences, but do they view celebrities as credible or authentic spokespeople? Are younger people more likely than older people to listen to celebrities, simply because they are young?
- We need to do a much better job figuring out the right communication media to reach younger people. News agencies and newspapers are little used by Generation Y, and they are even moving beyond Meet-Ups and websites (though they remain important); people are text- and instant-messaging, downloading videos on their cell phones, and playing video games with people across the country. Would young people pay attention if we reached them through these media?
- For many young people, candidates and political parties simply lack credibility. Some of this skepticism reflects, in our view, a legitimate assessment of what the current political system has to say to them (i.e., not very much). But it also relates to style. Just talking about tuition tax breaks or global warming is not going to make young people Democrats. How can we develop a style that is sincere, genuine, and speaks to their desire for authenticity?
The answers to these questions--and others as well--would help the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates begin to build a relationship with younger voters that will last and maybe even be passed on to their children. But this relationship needs to be reciprocal. Young people do not want to be pandered to, and they want to believe in something bigger than themselves. Younger people are voting Democratic because they are out of step with Republicans ideologically, they want to get out of Iraq, and they are worried about their economic security. Let's work to provide them a reason to not only vote Democratic, but also to become lifelong Democrats.
Anna Greenberg is Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
Amy Gershkoff is the Director of Analytics at MSHC Partners/Predicted Lists LLC.
1National Exit Pool's Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
2Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report "Young Voters in the 2006 Elections," December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
3There were efforts by candidates and state parties in some states such as Virginia and Montana.
4See for example Campbell et al., 1960, The American Voter, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
5Data in Tables 1-3 were taken from the United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
6In 1992 Perot voters (22 percent) were allocated evenly across the two candidates. In 1996, all Perot voters were allocated to Dole. In 2000 and 20004, all Nader voters were allocated to the Democratic candidate.
7CIRCLE Report, "Youth Demographics," November 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
9"The State of Our Unions," The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University. Last accessed March 9, 2007. (Subscription required.)
10Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr., 1994, "History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States," Children and Divorce, Vol. 4, No. 1. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
11GQR+Polimetrix Youth Monitor, September 2005, based on an Internet panel of 892 18-24 year olds.
12U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2005. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
13National Exit Pool's Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
14United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
15"Campus Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service Survey," Institute of Politics, Harvard University, 2001. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
16Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1254 adults, conducted February 12-18, 2003. Data can be downloaded here. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
17CIRCLE Report "Young Voters in the 2006 Elections," December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
18Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1506 adults, conducted August 9-13, 2006; this is the latest Pew Research Center survey about Iraq in which the data is publicly available. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
19"The 11th Biannual Survey of Politics and Public Service," Institute of Politics, Harvard University. Survey conducted October 4-16, 2006, N=2546. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
20Democracy Corps national surveys of likely voters, October - November 2006.
21Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
23Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007; see also Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics," January 9, 2007 for a similar finding. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
24Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics," January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
25Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006.
26All other cohorts registered between 60 and 67 percent support for investment in alternative energy. Source: Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
27American National Election Studies cumulative data file Last accessed March 9, 2007. Similar trend analysis can be found in Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report "Young Voters in the 2006 Elections," December 12, 2006. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS-Midterm06.pdf. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
28Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
31See, for example, Hulbert, Ann, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," New York Times Magazine, March 11, 2007. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
32Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics," January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
35Pew Internet and American Life Project and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "The Internet and Campaign 2004," November 22, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
36Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership," July 20, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
37Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Report. "Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much 'Mud-Slinging'; Moral Values: How Important?" November 11, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.