DISCUSSION: How Can Presidential Candidates Connect To Young Voters?

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AUDIO: Young Voters Want Respect (Commentary, KCBS)

Eighteen-year-old Youth Radio commentator Amber Ly is a senior in high school and gearing up for voting in her first Presidential election. She’s not too pleased with the candidates’ attempts to be “relatable” to youth. Having grown up during the financial crisis, Ly wants details on their plans regarding student loans and healthcare. She cares about climate change and police violence. But too often, Ly says front-runners are “talking down to young voters” and “wasting time playing guitar or Snapchatting.” While she thinks it’s great that candidates are making efforts to connect with Generation Z, Ly says the problem is, too often they’re trying too hard, skipping over the substance.

Do Now

How should political candidates engage effectively with young voters? #DoNowYouthVote

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It’s a decent time to be a young voter (or soon-to-be voter) in the U.S., at least in terms of sheer numbers. For the first time, there are as many of you as there are baby boomers. So you’re in a position to make a real difference in this election–especially if you live in one of the ten states the research group CIRCLE has identified, where even a small change in the youth vote could make a big difference in the outcome of the Presidential election.

So far in this election season, we’re seeing encouraging signs with respect to young voter turnout. According to the New York Times, your participation in the primaries so far is rivaling rates we saw when Barack Obama ran in 2008. That said, historically speaking, people between the ages of 18-29 vote at substantially lower rates than every other age group. In the 2012 election, only 45% of 18-29 year old eligible voters voted, whereas 72% of those 65 and older voted.

What could account for these numbers? Lack of interest? Lack of knowledge of the voting process? Or does responsibility fall with politicians, who fail to address issues critical to people in their teens and twenties? There’s also the matter of strategy. You don’t have to look very far to find a slew of embarrassing attempts by presidential candidates to court young voters, like Ben Carson’s rap radio ad, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter campaign to discuss college debt through emojis, or Ted Cruz’s Simpsons impersonation for Buzzfeed.

It’s understandable that today’s candidates seek to replicate the success Barack Obama had connecting with young voters in 2008 and 2012. And of course young people aren’t the only ones who can feel alienated by electoral politics. “If you’re not from a community where voting is the norm, if you’re not from a family where your parents took you to the polling place when you were a little kid, if you haven’t gone to college and developed those cognitive skills,” Professor Melissa Michelson told KQED earlier this month, “then we’re really asking a lot of voters.”

For candidates seeking to get those voters to the polls, finding the right balance between substance and style seems–like so much in politics–is a lot harder than it looks.


  • How important is it for campaigns to hire young talent in leadership positions on the campaign?
  • What would be your words of advice to the front-runners who want so badly to appeal to your generation?

Do Next

Do Next takes the online conversation to the next level: these are suggestions for ways to go out into your community and investigate how the topic featured in this Do Now plays out in people’s lives. Use digital storytelling tools and social media to share your story and take action. Make sure to tag your creations with #DoNowYouthVote.

  • Imagine that two front-runners (from opposing parties or within the same party–your pick!) are planning a visit to your school. Have students come up with two questions they would ask the candidates–one based on a policy issue your students care deeply about, and one that measures the candidates’ youth culture savvy. Then have your class vote on the best questions and tweet them to the candidates. While you await responses (let @youthradio know if you get them!), you could have students research candidates’ positions and personalities, and come up with the answers they’d expect from each one, citing sources for evidence.
  • Create a survey to poll students in the school about the issues they care most about in the upcoming election. Use Youth Radio’s How to Make an Infographic toolkit to prepare them to visualize the survey results in clear and engaging ways. Reflect on what’s most surprising about the findings, and identify candidates’ positions on the issues that came out on top.

More Resources

Who Was America’s Most Well-Spoken President?

In 2014, a site called Vocativ analyzed 600 Presidential speeches and addresses and based on an algorithm assigned them a grade level. The big finding: the sophistication of speeches has steadily dropped since George Washington’s time. But don’t assume this means there’s been a dumbing down of America. Former President Bill Clinton’s lead speechwriter Jeff Shesol sees the drop as a sign of democratization: “In the early Republic, presidents could assume that they were speaking to audiences made up mostly of men like themselves: educated, civic-minded landowners. These, of course, were the only Americans with the right to vote. But over time, the franchise expanded and presidential appeals had to reach a broader audience.”

11 Humiliatingly Lame Ways 2016 Candidates Are Trying To Appeal To Young Voters

The Week tracked a whole bunch of regrettable attempts today’s candidates have made to connect with youth that have fallen flat or backfired. As stated in their lede: “As a millennial, I can’t decide whether to be flattered by how hard the 2016 presidential candidates are trying to woo my generation, or utterly flabbergasted by how lame their ploys are.”

10 States Where Millennials Could Sway The Election

The research group CIRCLE came up with a complex index to identify in which ten states young voters are poised to make the biggest difference in who becomes the next President of the United States. “Parties and other political groups often overlook the votes and energy of young people even where youth can have a decisive influence on the outcome of the race. CIRCLE is providing data-driven insights about the states and congressional districts where youth are poised to have a disproportionately high electoral impact in 2016.”

New Hampshire Teen Tells Young People to Get Out and Vote

When a social studies teacher encouraged senior Allison Perkins and her classmates to get out and see some political candidates live, at first she balked. But soon, she was hooked, and is now urging  other young people to take advantage of their right and privilege to choose their leaders: “Not only should people of legal voting age be up to date on politics, but even teenagers not yet able to vote, because eventually today’s teenagers are going to be the ones making important decisions on how our country is run.”

What Does Being Politically Active Mean To You?

In this KQED DoNow from January 2016, Youth Radio’s Desmond Meagley reflected on his generation’s relationship to politics, and how they’re redefining what it means to be civically engaged. “My own political involvement mostly happens in front of a computer screen,” Meagley says. “When an online movement like BlackLivesMatter can force police departments to review their tactics, it’s clear that joining a political party isn’t the only way to make change.” Check out this DoNow for Desmond’s full story and a set of discussion prompts and activity ideas to advance your students’ knowledge about and interest in next-generation, digital age civics.

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