Young voter trends have fascinated me ever since the Obama-McCain bloodbath of 2008. As bleak as the statistics were two years ago, I've been building a case that Obama's youth landslide did not, and will not, guarantee permanent electoral or ideological doom for conservatives among Millenials.
Virginia offers a case in point. In 2008, voters 18-29 in Virginia backed Obama over McCain by a 21-point margin. One year later, the same cohort supported conservative Republican Bob McDonnell for Governor by ten points--a 31-point (D) to (R) swing.
Last week, the New York Times ran a piece describing younger voters' disenchantment with the Democratic Party. The lede captured the story's message:
The college vote is up for grabs this year — to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago, when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama.
As the 2010 elections draw closer, some polls are vindicating the Times' report and my instincts. For instance, we recently noted Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul's enormous lead among the youngest age bracket, and a survey in liberal California offers some encouraging news for a top Republican statewide office-seeker.
Survey USA's poll of California voters conducted in late August and early September reveals a 7-point lead for Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman over Democrat Jerry Brown, and a narrow 2-point advantage for GOP Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina over incumbent Barbara Boxer.
Delving into the survey's internals, Whitman and Fiorina track fairly closely among all age demographics except one: 18-34 year-olds. In the Governor contest, Brown holds a statistically insignificant 3-point edge over Whitman among young voters, whereas Boxer is dominating the same group by 24 points. Put another way, Whitman is outperforming her Republican counterpart by 21 points among younger voters, which partially explains her stronger overall poll position.
California Republican Party Vice Chairman, Jon Fleischman--who also operates the popular Flash Report blog--says the disparity boils down to two related factors: Quality of outreach and money. "Meg Whitman has spent a huge amount of money on ads and other voter contacts," he explained, "So she's been able to define herself and her candidacy forcefully and on her terms. Carly doesn't have the same level of resources, so she's been defined more by the media's coverage of her campaign."
Fleischman marveled at the breadth of Whitman's outreach campaign and her ability to reach such a wide spectrum of voters. "She's spent tons of money on the web, in social media, and on aggressive micro-targeting of different groups, including young people" he said. "She even published a booklet for young voters and college students explaining why she's the best choice."
Whitman's youth-oriented web page, 'Gen-M', is a sophisticated online resource for Millenial voters in California. The page is broken down into two subsections: "Students for Meg" and "Young Professionals for Meg," aimed at older twentysomethings. The pages include profiles and photos of young Whitman supporters, links to the candidate’s twitter, facebook, youtube and flickr accounts, and user-friendly invitations to text the campaign, volunteer, donate, start a Gen-M chapter, or request a ballot. Users are encouraged to join other online Whitman-for-Governor coalitions, including those targeting women, Latinos, and African Americans.
Fiorina also offers a coalitions page, but it's fairly generic and not nearly as interactive. That's not a knock on Fiorina; it's a testament to the astonishing level of resources Whitman is pouring into her race.
Sleek online tools, fresh-faced coalition leaders, and facebook friends aside (although it's worth pointing out that Whitman dwarfs the state's other major Gubernatorial and Senate nominees with nearly 105,000 facebook supporters), 26-year-old California based columnist and author Ben Shapiro believes Whitman's advantage among young voters can largely be attributed to strong name recognition.
"Whitman spent an enormous amount of money in the primary, and now in the general [election] to get her name out there. People my age have seen her ads and billboards, and know who she is," Shapiro said. "It's been 30 years since Jerry Brown was Governor in California, and young people don't remember that. We weren't even born yet."
The name recognition effect is also boosting Boxer, Shapiro contends. "People just know who she is. Younger voters tend to be lazy, so they gravitate toward a name they recognize."
Granted, few--if any--candidates will ever come close to matching the former eBay CEO dollar-for-dollar in self funding. But Whitman's campaign can still serve as a template for successful outreach techniques, even if they're executed on a significantly smaller scale. Team Whitman is effectively modernizing two well-worn campaign principles: Reach voters where they are, and don't be afraid to state your case and ask for their vote.
It appears that quite a few young Californians are open to saying yes.