Benjamin Gerdes, 29, thought politics wasn’t for him until he volunteered for Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., in her 2010 re-election campaign. SHFWire Photo by Flavio Del Pino
WASHINGTON – Two years after Benjamin Gerdes’ father died, he took a year off from college. Before going back to the University of Chicago to get his English degree in 2009, he accepted an internship with Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md.
It was an unexpected opportunity for Gerdes, 29, who became politically active when he volunteered to work for Edwards’ 2010 re-election campaign, soon after graduating from college.
The experiences made him realize that politics should be a matter of concern for young people like him.
“Beyond watching the ‘West Wing,’ I never gave politics a serious thought,” said Gerdes, who is the press secretary for Edwards’ 2016 campaign for an open Senate seat.
Millennials represent the largest generational group in the U.S., surpassing baby boomers. There are 75.3 million millennials, ages 18 to 34, and 74.9 million baby boomers, ages 51 to 69. The challenge for both parties is to find viable ways to encourage millennials to vote.
Gerdes, who has voted in primary and general elections ever since he started working for Edwards, said he feels lucky to work for a Senate campaign and that any young person can do the same.
“I think it’s important for young people to know that they can be involved,” Gerdes said. “And that they can work in congressional campaigns and Senate campaigns. They can be real assets to campaigns and they can make a difference.”
For Dean, “first globals” is the generation that thinks and connects globally across religious or cultural boundaries.
“Hiring 20-somethings to do your social media is essential,” said Dean, who led a grassroots-focused campaign that attracted many young supporters during his 2004 presidential run and later chaired the Democratic National Committee.
Dean is the founder of Democracy for America, a political action committee that ran the “Run Warren Run” effort to push progressive, liberal champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to run in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
“In the 12 years since my campaign, much of the email traffic campaigns put out has become irrelevant and is unopened,” he said. “We need a new medium to reach voters, especially young voters, and this first global generation will be the ones who are most likely to invent it.”
State branches of the Democratic and Republican parties are taking action to lure millennials and to get them to vote in early presidential primary states such as South Carolina.
Jason Perkey, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that livestream video hangouts could be a more viable medium than social media, because it allows voters to see a candidate and ask questions in real time.
“Social media is social media,” Perkey said.
“There are new, exciting ways that young people can use to be more involved,” he said. “Virtual ways to communicate, for example, streaming a conversation where you’re looking at that person in the eye and seeing their facial expressions is something far more personal than a twitter feed.”
Like the South Carolina Democrats, the Republican Party of South Carolina places a millennial member in the office third vice chair, charged with engaging with young voters on local and state levels.
Taylor Mason, 23, third vice chair of the Republican Party of South Carolina, said that, although social media is an effective tool to communicate with millennials, it shouldn’t substitute for personal interaction.
“It’s like advertising,” Mason said about social media. “But that’s not the main message. The main message is one-on-one interaction and hopefully getting millennials where we can have that conversation.”
The Republican National Committee is taking action on college campuses, where Democrats tend to dominate.
The RNC’s deputy press secretary Raffi Williams, a millennial, said the GOP is building a stronger presence in college campuses to attract more young voters.
“A strong point the Democrats had is that they’re very good at creating a sense of community,” Williams, 26, said. “After 2012, Republicans have been working to build a community of young conservatives, and the results of 2014 show we are making headway.”
About 21 percent of millennials headed to the polls in the 2014 midterm elections.
Data from the Pew Research Center show that millennials, for the most part, consider themselves politically independent, yet when they vote, they tend to favor Democrats.
Peter Levine, professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University, said Republicans still have a chance to appeal to millennials in 2016.
“The truth of the matter is, Obama is president of the United States thanks to the young people in Iowa, who helped get his name on the national ticket,” Levine said. “Republicans have a chance to narrow the gap. Millennials have almost exactly equal support among both parties. But after the Obama era, a Republican candidate could potentially appeal to them.”
In 2008, voting participation among millennials peaked, with Barack Obama gaining over 60 percent of the youth vote, compared to Sen. John McCain’s 32 percent. In 1972, boomers turned out in their highest numbers when they were 18 to 29 years old, the same age as millennials, with 54 percent of boomers voting in the Nixon-McGovern election.
Millennials represent the most ethnically diverse group compared to previous generations, yet Levine said their views are different and cannot be defined by either a conservative or progressive mantra.
“They’re all over the place.” Levine said. “But the clearest issue that the young generation is accepting of is gay rights.”
Political campaigns often run negative ads that paint a bad picture of a candidate to voters. The 2014 Florida gubernatorial election between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist was by far the most cutthroat and expensive race in the nation that year, with the two campaigns spending than $62 million in TV ads, most of them negative.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., said his district had an increase in millennial turnout in the last election, but the more negative and partisan campaigns become, the less likely millennials will to head to the polls.
Murphy, 32, is one of eight members of the 114th Congress, who are millennials. The others are Justin Amash, 35, R-Mich.; Tulsi Gabbard, 34, D-Hawaii; Joe Kennedy, 34, D-Mass.; Jason Smith, 34, R-Mo.; Eric Swalwell, 34, D-Calif.; Elise Stefanik, 30, R-N.Y., and Carlos Curbelo R-Fla., 34.
“Unfortunately, if you look at just the trend, there’s more and more negativity being injected in the system and, therefore, lower turnout. We’ve got to change that trend,” said Murphy, who is running in 2016 for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running in the Republican presidential primary.
“My last campaign, we had 13 TV ads – every single one of them was positive – ended up getting a little bit of a higher percentage of voter turnout in our district,” Murphy said.
Toby Crittenden, 33, executive director of the Washington Bus in Seattle, said that for politics to appeal to millennials, it has to involve people, participation, policy and his favorite: party. The group encourages young people to vote.
“Politics can be very negative and narrow,” Crittenden said. “We are trying to get an entire generation to be involved in this thing called democracy. Voter registration is the first step to increase voter turnout.”
Florida will allow online voter registration by 2017, but Ashley Spillane, president of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit organization that tries to engage millennials with the political process, said it makes sense for more states to adopt online voter registration because it would streamline voting procedures.
In three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – all votes are done with mail-in ballots.
“I think we have this incredibly antiquated election system,” Spillane said.
“We show up on a Tuesday, just like we all did in the 1800s, to vote. Only half of the states in the country allow you to register to vote online,” she said. “And you have a generation that has been raised as digital natives to do everything online from file your taxes to booking travel, to deal with student loan debt – it’s all done online.”
Studies show that millennials who attend and graduate from college are more likely to vote than millennials who do not.
Richard Flacks, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara said millennials who tend to not be well settled in a community are not as engaged with the news and are less likely to vote, and millennials in general don’t pay much attention to more traditional forms of media.
“The way people get their news is shaped by where they are, in terms of age,” Flacks said.
“Older people may still be reading newspapers or watching network television news on a regular and habitual basis, whereas millennials are much more likely to be getting their news information from the Internet and social media.”
Gerdes, who encourages young people to lobby for the issues they care about, said that besides student debt and marijuana legalization, millennials should also be concerned with bigger issues such as foreign policy and equal pay.
“Young people should be concerned with retirement programs. They should be concerned about the environment and income inequality,” he said.
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