The first rule for improving the historically lackluster voting rate for millennials is to never, ever call them that.
That’s just one of the many nuggets in a major new research project that NextGen America, one of billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s political organizations, will unveil at a presentation in Washington on Thursday morning. (This is a separate entity from Steyer’s other well-known project, Need to Impeach.) In what it calls “one of the largest-ever research efforts on the political motivations of young Americans”—the top-performing title for those who would also accept being called “young people,” “young adults,” or, more simply, “people age 18-35”—the organization lays out which messages do and don’t encourage young Democrats and independents to show up. (Two Democratic-aligned firms, Brilliant Corners and Global Strategy Group, conducted the focus groups and polling, respectively.)
Beyond naming preferences, though, the survey’s biggest takeaway is that young voters, unlike older cohorts, need to be reminded of the power they possess—as both a bloc and as individual voters.
Among 17 messages polled for motivating young voters (and developed through focus groups), the most persuasive across multiple metrics related to “power in numbers”—i.e., reminding young people that the roughly 70 million eligible voters between 18 and 35 are becoming the largest bloc in the country, but they’re ignored because they turn out in such low rates (especially in nonpresidential years). Though turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was low across the board, the roughly 20 percent turnout among young voters still registered as jarring. By contrast, the most reliable age cohort, those 65 and older, turned out at 60 percent. And young voters of today also turn out less than previous generations did when they were the young voters.
The “emphasis on the power that young people have collectively, and on the fact that politicians who aren’t listening to them because they aren’t voting will have to listen if they do, is probably pretty unique to this age cohort,” Jamison Foser, a NextGen America senior adviser who leads the organization’s opinion research, told me. “Baby boomers have been hearing about how powerful they are for 40 years.”
The second most persuasive message rehashes the results of the Virginia state legislative elections in 2017, one of the all-time great examples of how much each vote can matter.
“Some people think that one vote doesn’t matter,” the message reads. “But last year, control of the Virginia legislature came down to a single vote in one single race. After Democrats gained 15 seats, they were able to expand Medicaid and give health care to 400,000 Virginians in need.” Not every race this year will come down to a literal drawing of lots, though plenty of them seem to be coming down to hundreds of votes.
The least motivating messages, by contrast, included an abstraction about how tiring the “chaos” in Washington has become, a take-your-medicine line about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a declaration that “the old guard” of centrist Democrats “has lost.” (If someone’s already lost, then why bother showing up?)
The research also found, perhaps less uniquely to the younger voters, that negative messaging in the time of Trump beats aspirational any day of the week.
Half of the sample—excluding “super voters,” the term researchers use for those young people almost certain to vote—was read an aspirational message and the other half a negative one. The former described America as the “land of the free and a place where we take care of each other, but right now, we’re not living up to what we are supposed to be as a country,” and urged the sample to “[vote] for new leaders who will bring change in November.” The latter said that things are already terrible and will get worse “if Donald Trump and his allies gain more power,” citing their “hateful, racist, and sexist attacks.”
The negative message proved twice as effective a motivator and did especially well with the younger end of the cohort (aged 18 to 27), women, and Hispanic voters. That final category, though hardly a monolith, is especially important to motivate, the research finds, because “non-whites have significantly lower intensity on caring about who controls Congress—particularly Hispanics.”
As for labeling the opposition, the researchers also tested “names for Republicans that make them sound bad.” In general, the more congressional Republicans were linked with Trump, the worse they sounded. Neither “the establishment” nor “the people in power” performed nearly as well (poorly?) as “Trump’s enablers,” “the party of Trump,” or “Trump’s allies in Congress.” And “Republicans are moving us backwards” or—this was really tested—“Republicans are fucking us over” are found to be more effective than “Republicans are stealing our future” or “Republicans are selling us out.”
The researchers are not suggesting that these messaging recommendations will be a cure-all to the entrenched problem of young people voting in lower rates than older demographics.
“Our messaging does a solid—but not spectacular—job of increasing intention to vote,” they say in the conclusion of the presentation they’ll make Thursday morning. “This is not an easy task.” Even though, for example, the negative messaging is twice as effective a motivator, the effect is still marginal: The aspirational message, for example, moved the mean likelihood to vote from 7.5 to 7.7 on a 1-10 scale (with 10 as mostly likely), while the negative message moved it from 7.5 to 7.9.
But for now, NextGen hopes this research can at least kick-start the arduous process of turning infrequent young voters into a reliable bloc.
“Young voters, the largest eligible voting bloc in the country, are essential to propelling progressives to victory in 2018 and beyond,” Steyer told me. “The future of America is dependent on our ability to speak to them in a way that is meaningful and effective.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus