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Inside Democrats’ Zoomer strategy, as seen in FWIW
Young voters could decide the midterms. Here’s how they’re being reached online
Today’s edition is being published in partnership with FWIW (For What It’s Worth), a weekly newsletter by Kyle Tharp that breaks down digital spending, strategy, tactics, and trends in our elections. Subscribe here!
It’s no secret that the Trump-era was ripe with youth activism, and youth voter turnout surged in both 2018 and 2020. But now, without Trump officially on the ballot in 2022, will young Americans continue to vote in high numbers? How are digital political operatives working to persuade and mobilize them this year?
Kyle and I teamed up to take a look 👀
Youth vote in the news 🗞
What’s on the Minds of 12 Young Voters, The New York Times
Young Voters Approve of Democratic Policies But Don’t Credit the Party, Teen Vogue and Change Research Find, Fortesa Latifi for Teen Vogue
Gen Z on voting: “We’re the wrong generation to piss off", Mahlia Posey and Breanna Muir for The Washington Post
P.S. We’re Instagram official 📲
Inside Democrats’ Zoomer strategy
It’s no secret that the Trump-era was ripe with youth activism, and youth voter turnout surged in both 2018 and 2020. Most young Americans disagreed with the conservative policies pushed by the former President and his response to a number of events that colored his time in office. Fired up, they developed a strong community of resistance online, which led to school walkouts and mass demonstrations in cities across the U.S. That momentum played into the high youth voter turnout we saw across the past two cycles.
But now, without Trump officially on the ballot in 2022, it begs the question: Will young Americans continue to vote in high numbers?
An overwhelming number of political moments in the past two years have closely affected young peoples’ lives (the withdrawal from Afghanistan; record high inflation; mass shootings; the reversal of Roe v. Wade, to name a few), and more than 8 million young Americans have turned 18 since the 2020 general election. Young people can swing elections in key states.
Hypothetically — digital political operatives should be working night and day to turn out young voters. So what are the techniques and tactics they’re using? Here’s a look:
Will younger voters actually turn out?
Conventional wisdom in DC says that younger voters don’t typically vote in midterm elections, but in 2018, there was record-high youth voter turnout. Will they once again turn out in high numbers for a midterm election? Or will they retreat to pre-2018 levels? I spoke with Democratic data expert Tom Bonier, who is bullish on the prospect.
Bonier’s been keeping tabs on youth voter registration numbers and notes that the youth voter registration rate is surging, which he predicts indicates there will be high youth voter turnout. Looking at the 2022 voter registration data so far in comparison to 2018, Bonier's theory is that just as the tragic mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida motivated young Americans in 2018, the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could catalyze young voters in 2022 -- including the many young Americans who voted for the first time in 2020.
“The surges in voter registration that we're seeing are important and relevant and suggest that the electoral landscape may be much more important than we've been led to believe by some of the polling.”
The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling on abortion rights will no doubt have some impact here, and Democrats in Washington have also tried their best to pass policies to get this group of voters fired up for November. Late this summer, they landed a one-two punch on issues critically important to voters under 35 by passing meaningful climate legislation and taking action to cancel student loan debt. Now, it’s on the campaigns and party committees to spread the word about those achievements and what’s at stake.
So, how are campaigns and political groups trying to reach younger voters?
Smart campaigns and political groups have realized that younger voters consume news and information differently than older generations and are tailoring their voter outreach strategies accordingly. For instance, in Georgia, where younger voters could have a decisive impact on the Gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, Democrats have spent large sums of money on Snapchat ads to persuade and mobilize key groups.
Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock are the top spending political campaigns on the platform this cycle, blanketing young voters on Snapchat with ads about everything from college affordability to gun safety.
On Facebook and Instagram, left-leaning outside groups have also spent significant sums to reach voters in innovative ways. Several major spenders targeting younger voters in the campaign’s closing days are Action for the Climate Emergency, the Voter Participation Center, Every Eligible American, Priorities USA Action, and the Voter Formation Project.
The nonpartisan Voter Formation Project is specifically zeroing in on younger people of color via ads on Snapchat and Youtube. The group’s CEO, Tatenda Musapatike, said they are experimenting with different formats and different platforms, with a goal of reaching voters where they are.
When it comes to Gen Z, “This audience is so no bullshit,” she said. “They’re so on their phones all the time, that we have to be constantly reaching them through both traditional organizing means, but we need to have a constant presence online. Because if we’re not doing it, someone else is, and it’s not the people who believe in democracy.”
It’s not all about paid advertising…
Youth-led digital savvy coalitions are also reaching millions of young Americans – without spending major dollars on paid media.
In Pennsylvania’s Governor’s race, Students for Shapiro has turned into one of, if not, the most robust candidate-oriented student organizing operations this cycle with over 50 chapters and 800 members both in PA and out (it even has an ‘Away from PA initiative’ to engage students voting absentee).
The group has partnered with high-profile groups like Gen Z for Change, the TikTok coalition with more than 1.5M followers, to introduce Josh Shapiro to the youngest swath of the PA electorate.
Shapiro — who was one of the first 2022 candidates to launch a TikTok account last year (he has 61K followers and 1M likes on his own account) — has leaned into this aspect of his campaign, hopping on viral trends like Bama Rush TikTok and posting BeReal photos to the Students for Shapiro Twitter account. Most recently, Shapiro played a game of “Slay or Nay” on his TikTok account, where he said that both abortion rights and sneakers with suits are in fact, slay.
Shapiro is one of several dozen high-profile statewide candidates using TikTok this cycle, according to a recent FWIW analysis. Others include Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Val Demings. While TikTok prohibits paid political advertising, these campaigns have been able to rack up millions of views on their content organically.
With its massive organic following, Gen Z for Change has become a digital savvy leader in the progressive youth vote space, and in addition to highlighting Shapiro’s campaign (and text banking for him), the group’s TikTok page has been graced by O’Rourke and Val Demings. Earlier this week, the group did an Instagram Live with John Fetterman’s wife Gisele – they discussed issues such as abortion rights, voting access, and the filibuster.
Sam Shlafstein, a sophomore at Chapman University who spoke with Gisele Fetterman, said that with their candidate lives, Gen Z for Change aims “to show that politicians are accessible to young people and that they’re willing to speak with us.”
“I think people are eager to become engaged, they just don’t know how, and it’s cool that we can provide those outlets,” Shlafstein said.
This weekend, Gen Z for Change will host a 22-hour Twitch livestream featuring candidates such as Gen Zers Sam Lawrence, who’s 19 and running for the Ohio state House, and Nabeela Syed, who’s 23 and running for the Illinois state House.
The willingness from campaigns to leverage Gen Z for Change’s audience is indicative of the clout the organization has with young voters. It also speaks to a larger trend of campaigns shifting toward working with social media stars, celebrities, and influencers over traditional ad buys to reach Gen Z.
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