AMES — They have the potential to form a powerful voice in elections, but are known for sitting on the electoral sidelines.
Young voters, in Iowa and across the country, historically do not vote at high rates. Some progressive advocacy groups are executing a grassroots campaign in hopes of changing that this year and unleashing a normally dormant constituency and Iowa’s largest voting bloc.
“Young people have the potential to reshape the American political landscape in November, but they often don’t recognize their electoral power,” said Heather Hargreaves, director of NextGen America, an issue advocacy group created by California liberal billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, in a statement. “A smart, targeted digital strategy will be the difference between young people heading to the polls or two more years of total Republican rule.”
Americans 18 to 29 years old have turned out at the lowest rate of any age group — by a wide margin — in every election since 1986, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project. Roughly 20 percent to 40 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 voted in the elections between 1986 and 2016; other age groups turned out at rates of 40 percent to 70 percent.
In 2016, 18- to 24-year-old Iowans were the state’s lowest share of registered voters and the lowest turnout rate, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the state. Fewer than half of those young Iowans were registered to vote in 2016 — compared to 66 percent to 81 percent of older age groups — and a meager 36 percent of those young Iowans voted that year — compared to 54 percent to 77 percent turnout rates among older age groups.
“Historically, the younger bloc — particularly 18 to 24 — is one of the most difficult age blocs to mobilize,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “It’s even harder in a non-presidential year.”
Democrats and progressive issue groups like NextGen America feel this year could be different, and are doing the groundwork to make that happen. If they can get young people to vote at significantly higher rates, it could have a dramatic impact on this fall’s elections.
Young voters in Iowa are the state’s largest voting bloc: registered voters ages 18 to 35 comprise 28.3 percent of the state’s registered voters, according to Iowa Secretary of State figures. Iowans ages 50 to 64 make up 25.5 percent of all registered voters, 65 and over 23.4 percent, and 35 to 49 22.8 percent.
Schmidt said there is some polling and anecdotal evidence that voting enthusiasm among young people is similar to 2008 when President Barack Obama was elected to his first term.
If the youth vote reached 2008 levels it likely would have an impact on the elections.
In 2008, 59 percent of Iowans 18 to 24 years old voted; just 36 percent of that age group voted in 2016, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the state.
“This is the key story for 2018,” Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, wrote in an email. “If young voters who overwhelmingly in polls favor the Democrats don’t show up and vote, the GOP will be OK. If they turn out it could be huge for Democrats.”
Convincing young people to vote may not be easy. A recent Public Religion Research poll showed just 28 percent of Americans ages 18 to 19 said they are “certain” to vote this fall.
Voting is habitual, Larimer said historical election data shows. But motivating an individual for the first time can be challenging, Larimer said.
“It’s a habit-forming exercise. You do it once, you’re more likely to do it again,” Larimer said. “With that (young) group it’s more than just registering them to vote for the first time ... particularly in a midterm year.”
Groups like NextGen America feel issues like college student debt and reproductive health care will help motivate young voters, but Larimer and Schmidt said that remains to be seen.
“I don’t know if there’s a real platform or a set of issues that (young people) are really excited about. I haven’t seen data to suggest 18- to 24-year-olds are significantly more excited than they have been in the past,” Larimer said.
Added Schmidt, “I think the biggest problem is that there are so many issues and so much political noise that young voters are overwhelmed and in many cases actually tuning out.”
That’s where groups like NextGen America hope to change the historical trends.
NextGen has devoted $33 million to a grassroots programs designed to get young people across the country registered to vote and engage with them to ensure they turn out in the November elections.
Iowa is one of 11 states targeted by NextGen: the group has been on 32 college campuses across the state, including community colleges, registering students to vote. The group says it has registered more than 9,500 Iowa college students since February, and soon will shift its focus to keeping those students engaged throughout the fall leading up to the November elections.
NextGen also spent $243,000 on a digital ad campaign targeting young voters on a variety of online platforms, including on social media, video players like YouTube and Hulu, and audio players like Pandora and Spotify.
“This year is different. It’s so different,” said Haley Hager, NextGen’s Iowa director who also did campus organizing in 2014 and 2016. “Whenever we are talking to students, they are way more informed about what is actually happening, and they are way more excited to register to vote, and they’re way more cognizant of, ‘I need to register and I need to vote this year because it’s really, really important.’”
NextGen staff said their youth turnout program has already worked in other states, particularly in 2017 in the race for governor of Virginia and recently in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. In the latter, turnout increased more than five times over 2014 levels in places where NextGen was active, staff said.
“We know that it actually works. So we are really, really excited to see how it’s going to make an impact here in Iowa this election cycle,” Hager said. “Because we know it’s going to be big. We just don’t know how big yet.”
The political science experts are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t think we know yet if young voters are really going to mobilize,” Larimer said.