Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Turning Out the Youth Vote
- At the grass roots: A look at 8 Las Vegas campaign volunteers (Oct. 28, 2012)
- How Obama won Nevada (Nov. 5, 2008)
- More Sun political news
Four years ago, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign message of hope and a future limited only by the breadth of one’s dreams imbued the election with youthful optimism that inspired young voters to go to the polls in historic numbers.
Four hard years have aged that optimism much faster than the electorate. In 2012, both President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney are embracing an outlook tempered by pragmatism and reminders that sacrifice is a necessary precursor to potential.
Nationally, it means they’re losing a lot of the younger voters.
“Young people were much less engaged than they were four years ago,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Center, which recently published a report showing voter engagement among 18- to 29-year-olds is at its “lowest registration rate of the last five presidential elections.”
But there’s reason to believe Nevada could buck that trend.
“From what I see, young people are definitely going to turn out,” said J.T. Creedon, executive direction of the Nevada Youth Coalition, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization that is participating in get-out-the-youth vote drives. “They’re as motivated this year as I’ve ever seen them. We’re not going to have a problem with youth turnout here.”
While registration rates for voters across the country may be flagging, they appear to be holding form locally: At the close of registration in October, there were 133,638 active registered voters aged 18 to 24 in Nevada, compared with 137,267 in 2008. In the count of total young registrants — both active and inactive — Nevada has actually gained ground, with 156,088 on the books in 2012 as compared with 155,507 in 2008.
“There hasn’t been much drop-off,” said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV. “The question is, will they be able to get the young voters to vote at their level of registration?”
Nevada has been a swing state for so many cycles that “every vote counts” is now a common, almost hackneyed, refrain. But it means there is a gold rush on in both parties to mine untapped voters, no matter what the investment.
That makes Nevada’s approximately 120,000 residents who are old enough to vote for the first time in 2012 one of the most valuable constituencies on the market.
But every voter comes at a price.
Thus far, the presidential campaigns and the outside groups focused on them are spending more money in Nevada on a per capita basis than in any other state in the country. In terms of just advertising, campaigns are spending $7.9 million on each of Nevada’s six electoral votes, according to spending totals published by the National Journal.
But if you divide the money across the number of people who actually turn out to vote, Nevada blows Colorado — its next-closest Western rival — out of the water. The cost per head in Nevada, based on 2008 turnout numbers, is over $50, compared with about $30 per voter in Colorado.
And the price of a young voter is even higher, as new, non-habitual voters require more cultivation.
“First-time voters are always the hardest to get because they don’t know the rules, they haven’t had the experience of (voting) before, or they may be peripherally engaged in politics and feel they don’t know enough about what candidate to vote for,” Keeter said. “And young people have a very low turnout rate, and don’t have a long voter history so the (campaigns) don’t know if they’re reliably Democratic or Republican.”
It’s a three-step process: First one has to find and register the young voter, then keep track of him or her until the election and finally, get the individual to a poll.
“The (campaigns) have this calculation that they have to make: I have a limited amount of resources; how am I going to spend it most effectively to boost the chances of my candidate?"
So when it comes down to the final decision, young people are kind of the last people you spend your money on,” Keeter said. “There’s kind of a vicious circle here: Young people don’t get appealed to in campaigns ... and then when they don’t vote, campaigns decide, 'Well, I’m not going to waste my money trying to mobilize them.'”
This year, the cost-benefit analysis is a little more relaxed, as both Obama and Romney are waging billion-dollar campaigns — and that doesn’t even take into account all the money being spent mobilizing voters for congressional and state races.
“You have such concentrated populations in Nevada that you can reach a lot of people with a single event,” Damore said. “You can get a lot of bang for your buck.”
Nonetheless, the campaigns are getting some help.
On one side, campaign efforts are being reinforced by a record amount of union money going straight to finance voter turnout groups. They are pumping millions into voter outreach efforts and directly tapping crucial turnout groups on their own — especially, young, newly registered Latino voters.
That is the group “we identified as needing a lot of push,” Culinary Union Local 226 spokeswoman Yvanna Cancela said.
“The Latino vote and the youth vote have a lot of correlation: The Latino population is much, much younger on average than the white population,” Damore said. “And we know with Latino voters that the registration’s a big hurdle ... once you do that, the mobilization and getting them to the polls is a little bit easier.”
The kids who are the target of that campaign are of mixed minds about the messaging.
“I don’t like it, but know I’m going to be a chosen target, because we represent progress,” said UNLV student Javier Rivera-Rojas, 22, who is part of the first generation in his family to be eligible to vote. This is the second election he has voted in. “There’s a trickle-down theory, I guess ... if you vote, maybe when your sister, cousin, is grown up, you’re going to tell them, 'I voted, and I want you to vote.'”
But groups targeting Hispanic voters aren’t the only ones who have stepped up their game in 2012. Republicans — despite all the focus in Southern Nevada on deep-pocketed donors like Sheldon Adelson — have also upped their ground game.
“We saw a significant uptick in enthusiasm among Republicans,” Keeter said, citing data that Pew has collected since it published its report suggesting younger voters in both parties may have a late surge in interest closer to Election Day. “The engagement that’s now happening, the debates are part of it. There’s mobilization happening in both parties.”
“You certainly have seen the Republicans step up their game, at least on my campus,” Damore added.
An atmosphere reminiscent of a Sharks vs. Jets standoff — sometimes complete with dance-off sequences — has taken over the “free speech zone” of the UNLV campus. There, campaign staffers and volunteers man tables for eight hours a day or more, handing out buttons and flyers like candy and blasting passers-by and each other with megaphones. Full-DJ-speaker equipment pumps out either the latest catchy top-40 tune or their candidate’s latest campaign speech.
There is common purpose amid the competitive cacophony: Get everyone on their way to class or the library to go vote. ASAP.
But they have very different pitches to motivate people to do so.
“The economy ... If we get out of college and we can’t have a job, then what’s the point of even going to college?” said Lizz Pelkowski, a Romney volunteer on the UNLV campus.
“Education is a big issue ... a huge issue for students that they should be concerned with,” said Meghan Garibay, 23, and a fifth-year senior at UNLV. “Are you a student? Are you receiving financial aid? Did you know that President Obama doubled funding for Pell Grants? We try and really push those issue, because we want them to understand that Obama is for us.”
They are seeking to make an emotional connection based on real economic concerns. But there are inherent problems connecting with the students on both of those ideas.
The unemployment rate among college graduates is far lower — only about 5 percent — than the state’s crippling 11.8 percent unemployment rate overall, as the majority of jobs Nevada’s economy hemorrhaged during the recession were blue-collar positions.
“There are attempts to reach out to young people across the spectrum,” Creedon said, listing concerts and festivals among the events his group frequents, in addition to high school and college campuses, to tap young people of all educational and socio-economic backgrounds. “But just from a logistical aspect, you’ll find it easier to get a lot of young people in the same place on the same day at the college.”
The challenge for Republicans is actually reaching those voters directly. If they can’t, young voters will likely vote Democratic. Data show that since 2004, young voters have been the Democrats’ most loyal age group in every election.
To some degree, that trend is borne out by today’s numbers, as well. Active young Democratic registrants in Nevada outnumber Republican registrants almost 2 to 1, with 58,031 Democrats registered and 30,450 Republicans.
But the 34,980-strong pool of young independents more than makes up the gap in between.
“Young people tend to start out as independents ... but we know that these formative voting experiences last,” Keeter said. “The Democratic Party has a natural constituency with young people first and foremost because of the social issues. Young people are more concerned about discrimination, race, same-sex marriage and immigration ... and the Republican Party if anything has moved to the right on those issues.
“But beyond the social issues, the economy is one that potentially hurts the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party, because young people have been particularly hard-hit by the recession,” Keeter continued. “That makes it more difficult for the Democrats to say, 'We’re the party of good times.'”
Democrats have not had the easiest time addressing that potential enthusiasm gap head-on.
“(Obama) may have lost a lot of people based on the fact that he preached hope and change and some things didn’t change. Some people don’t have jobs. So that is where the struggle has been in getting people to be as enthusiastic about Barack,” said campaign volunteer Timmy Winston, 28, a junior at UNLV. “But I’m back again because I still believe in Barack Obama and I feel that he’s the better candidate.”
And Republicans have been crafting an argument on the issues where it might otherwise be assumed they would lose young voters.
"I feel like a lot of kids that I talk to are really passionate about the social issues, understandably. But to me, my mindset, if the economy isn’t strong, why even bother fighting about the social issues?” said Erica Nash, 22, who came to Las Vegas from Utah last weekend to canvass with local volunteers. “I care about the social issues as well, but focusing on a job is No. 1 for me.”
“From my perspective, I think America is such an incredible place to be a woman,” she added. “In my life, I felt I’ve had every opportunity I ever wanted.”
They are, in effect, trying to put a new face on the party, using younger voters to reach out to their peers whether on the street or through social media outlets.
“The hardest thing is getting people to stop ... to tell them you have to vote, no matter what, our votes count, every vote counts,” said ShaQuonna Chandler, 18, a UNLV student who was out pressing her peers to vote for Obama on Thursday. “This is our future. And I don’t care if you’re 65 or — my little brother is 7, he’s like, ‘we need people to vote so we can have a good country.’
“So if a 7-year-old who is still in elementary school can get it, you’re 18, you’re 19, you’re 20 or 21, why aren’t you voting?”