Over the years, the board of The Pew Charitable Trusts has been concerned that America’s democracy would be in trouble unless serious action was taken to increase the civic engagement of young people, particularly as voters.
In 2003, the Trusts made increasing voter turnout among young adults the centerpiece of a strategy for addressing youth civic engagement. Two grants to George Washington University totaling $8.9 million established the New Voters Project (NVP), a partnership between the university’s Graduate School of Political Management and state Public Interest Research groups, to conduct a nonpartisan, multi-state, multi-year voter registration and mobilization effort.
The New Voters Project was designed to address the steady decline in youth voting. In 1972, the first presidential election in which 18-year-olds were eligible to vote, 52 percent of eligible youth between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. By the 2000 presidential election, this figure had declined to 36 percent. Youth’s turnout in midterm elections has been worse, dropping from 25 percent in 1974 to 19 percent in 2002.
Young people’s diminishing involvement is not just a generational or lifecycle problem; it reflects a cycle of neglect. When young people do not vote or participate in the political process, campaigns, parties and advocacy groups are less likely to court them.
While political leaders and advocates pay attention to other constituencies, they do not frame issues in a way that will resonate with young people, nor do they make young people the object of their mobilization efforts. Whether empowering citizens to go to the voting booth or mobilizing them to sign a postcard, campaign professionals and issue organizers ignore young people. And young people, in turn, ignore them.
To break that cycle of neglect, NVP undertook two activities to demonstrate that young people will vote when asked to do so. First, NVP worked to increase youth voter turnout in six states by five percentage points, using nonpartisan, grassroots, voter-registration and mobilization techniques, many of which had been field-tested in earlier, smaller-scale, get-out-the-vote efforts funded by the Trusts and others. Working with an advisory committee that included prominent social scientists, NVP selected six states for activity: Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Second, NVP focused on drawing greater attention to young people as an important constituency for campaigns, candidates and relevant organizations.
The election of 2004 proved to be exciting for the youth vote. According to the Census Bureau, while turnout among the general population increased by four percentage points, the turnout of voters ages 18 to 24 increased by 11 over 2000. The Trusts commissioned an evaluation to better understand the effects of the New Voters Project during the 2004 election cycle. Researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a Trusts grantee, conducted an analysis of state-level turnout using publicly available Census Bureau data.
Diana Owen, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Georgetown University, conducted a content analysis of 2004 and 2000 media coverage to determine if journalists paid more attention to the youth vote. She also examined whether political party officials, candidates, political consultants and voter-mobilization groups were beginning to view youth as a constituency that warranted increased attention and outreach.
Summary of Findings
The Young Voters
NVP met both of its objectives during the 2004 election cycle. First, youth voter turnout increased by 14 percentage points in the six NVP states (from 39 percent to 53 percent), well beyond the five-percentage-point increase NVP originally anticipated. Among the evaluation’s key findings:
- Youth turnout increased markedly in each NVP state over 2000: 18 percentage points in Colorado, 18 in New Mexico, 15 in Iowa, 13 in Nevada, 12 in Wisconsin, and eight in Oregon.
- Compared to the overall 14-percentage-point increase in the NVP states as a group, the remaining 44 states increased 10 points (36 to 46 percent), and the country as a whole, 11 (36 to 47 percent).
Even though youth turnout increased markedly in each state where NVP was active, it also went up substantially elsewhere. Thus the evaluators could not conclusively attribute changes in turnout to NVP’s efforts. Yet, they noted, because of the scope of NVP’s activities, NVP likely played an important role in the turnout level in its states.
Second, NVP helped draw greater attention to youth during the 2004 election, with greater newspaper coverage and a more positive tone than in 2000. In order to better understand how the media covered the youth vote, Owen and her team conducted a content analysis of youthvoting news from 2000 and 2004. The researchers looked at coverage in the six NVP states, in six comparison states and among the top 25 national newspapers. Reviewing almost 2,700 articles, they found:
- Articles about youth voting more than doubled in 2004 over 2000. And the NVP states as a group garnered 60 percent more articles than the comparison states in 2004.
- Across the board, youth voting received more positive coverage in 2004 than in 2000. And the coverage in NVP-state newspapers was more positive in 2004 than the articles from the comparison states.
- Comparing 2004 to 2000 in NVP states, headline coverage doubled; more than twice as many articles were devoted entirely to youth; editorials increased 75 percent; and letters to the editor increased more than tenfold. Editorial coverage was equal.
- Coverage in 2004 was generally more substantive than in 2000. Nonpartisan youth-voting organizations were frequently mentioned, as were their events and activities, with NVP earning the greatest number of mentions in the six NVP states. Coverage calling for youth to get involved climbed in the NVP states. More stories included statistics about youth in 2004, particularly in the national papers.
The Elected Officials and Political Organizations
Did NVP’s key audiences, including politicians and their consultants, notice any of the above changes, and, if so, are they beginning to change their attitudes about youth as a constituency? According to their interview responses, more than 70 percent felt that the youth vote was an important media story in 2004, and 70 percent correctly perceived that media coverage of youth increased from 2000 to 2004.
Further, 45 percent judged the overall tone of media coverage of the youth vote in 2004 to be positive. Only 15 percent perceived the overall tone of coverage to be negative.
Determining whether these improvements in coverage and youth’s substantially higher turnout at the polls in 2004 are beginning to change the way that political professionals and politicians think about youth is a challenge. There is no survey-based information about the attitudes of these audiences prior to the 2004 election, making it difficult to gauge whether their responses to the postelection interviews reflect a change.
Anecdotal reports from the field suggest that some in these audiences see youth as important; (at least in the sense that all potential voters are important); however, because youth can be difficult to reach (e.g., they move more frequently and rely more on cell phones than land lines) and are less likely to vote than older adults, politicians have not typically treated youth as an accessible and responsive constituency.
More than 60 percent of those interviewed considered youth an important set of voters to reach. Roughly half said that their organizations were strongly interested in youth as voters. Yet subjects were split when asked about their candidates’ level of interest in the youth vote, either during or after the 2004 election: About 30 percent reported a strong interest, another 30 percent reported a weak interest, and the final 40 percent reported some level of interest in young voters by their candidate. Thus, at least during the 2004 election and its immediate aftermath, the views of respondents about the benefits of engaging youth as a constituency are mixed.
Among those interviewed, NVP earned a reputation as a reliable organization that provided trustworthy and valued information to the respondents’ organizations and to the press. They also said that NVP helped generate positive coverage of youth voting. Respondents praised NVP’s grassroots focus and successful events and believed its peer-to-peer approach to voter mobilization was the most effective way to reach youth.
The youth voting community needs strategies for maintaining politicians’ interest in youth (and vice versa) between election cycles. The community would benefit from innovative approaches for reaching youth beyond the college campus. Most aspects of NVP’s communications strategy were quite effective and could be productively emulated by others.
The evaluation suggests that NVP and others played an important nonpartisan role by bringing many more young adults into the political process and ensuring that the press and key audiences noticed. Sustaining and building on the progress in youth voting evident in 2004 is a challenge facing all those concerned about the nation’s civic life.
Lester Baxter is chief evaluation officer at the Trusts.