Does Barack Obama’s Youth Vote Signal A Generational & Political Shift?

I’m more inclined than most people to be optimistic about young voters actually turning out to cast their ballot; specifically, this generation of young voters, the Millennials. I say that because I’ve been paying close attention to generations since reading and ‘s book , which completely changed the way I think about generations in general and historical cycles in particular.

In short, the book examines American history in terms of generational change and argues that the reactions of one generation to another create a dynamic that produces four distinct generational archetypes that recur throughout our history.

Those generational archetypes and their most recent adult accompanying generations are Hero (the GI generation), Artist (the Silent generation), Idealist (the Baby Boom generation), and Nomad (Generation X). The newest generation, the Millennials, therefore would be a Hero generation and aligned with the WWII-era GI generation.

The GI generation’s accomplishments include saving the world from tyranny by fighting and winning World War II, building institutional pillars such as Social Security and the United Nations, fueled the post-war economic expansion, conquered space, and led the nation through the Cold War and the demise of Communism. The GIs were a civic-minded organization of builders.

Millennials’ Political Muscle

Like the GI generation, the Millennials are coming of age during a time of crisis (Hero generations, both) and of a civic-minded bent. On page 231 of Strauss and Howe’s 2000 book , they observe:

The fist Millennials have yet to cast their votes, so they’re still flying low under the adult radar, presumed to be alienated cynics who don’t care about voting, much less organizing. Yet adults who watch them perform civic tasks may sense something different brewing. Today’s school kids take the Pledge of Allegiance, and flag saluting, more seriously than Boomers or Gen Xers did. author Don Tapscott describes their “very strong sense of the common good and of collective social and civic responsibility.” Check out Kids Voting USA, Children’s Express, or the web world, and you’ll see kids discussing issues, participating in polls, and organizing mock elections, at times quite energetically.

But the very fiber of the political junkie in me believes in the conventional wisdom of politics that young people do not vote. During my entire adult lifetime, election after election, young voters have failed to participate in the political process to any significant degree. Thus, even though my research indicated that the Millennials could be the exception, I was highly skeptical of the Obama campaign’s reliance on turning out not just young voters, but new young voters to an Iowa caucus system that is highly intimidating to newcomers.

The following video features William Strauss discussing Millennials Rising on 11/14/00, prior to the Supreme Court deciding the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush:

Barack Obama’s Youth Vote


Barack Obama
Originally uploaded by Allison Harger

Bucking conventional wisdom and history, did just that. As , Obama’s campaign turned out voters 25 years of age and younger in record numbers: “while overall Democratic turnout jumped 90% [from 2004], the number of young Democrats participating soared 135%…According to surveys of voters entering the caucuses, young voters
preferred Obama over the next-closest competitor by more than 4 to 1.” That gave Obama a net gain of 17,000 votes and he won with roughly 20,000 votes ahead of and .

But even Obama’s victory on the backs of young voters didn’t fully dispel my skepticism of depending heavily upon the youth vote. That turnout could easily be explained by the fact that the Gen X candidate is a youthful, charismatic man who naturally appeals to young people. I would have easily accepted that explanation until I read a story on Saturday about a local election here in Minnesota.

In Northfield, Minnesota, we held a special election to fill a state Senate seat that was vacated due to a judicial appointment. The race pitted Ray Cox, a moderate Republican who had held a state House seat in the district against the DFL (the name of our state Democratic party) candidate, , a political newcomer.

“Dahle was boosted by the student vote at Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, despite predictions that few undergrads would turn out for a special election held just as they returned to campus from winter break,” the Star Tribune reported. “In the four Northfield precincts where most students vote, Dahle won nearly four times as many votes as Cox. His advantage there accounted for about two-thirds of his 1,600-vote victory margin.”

Add this to the data on Millennials’ civic-mindedness, and their votes for Obama, and I’m far more willing to believe that a fundamental shift has occurred in youth voting patterns. If young voters continue to consistently show up at the polls, then our nation’s political landscape will be fundamentally altered.

Barack Obama’s Micromarketing Campaign

Just as fascinating, however, is just how the Obama campaign got these Millennials to participate. As , though it doesn’t specifically identify it as such, the campaign used the peer-to-peer micro-targeting tactics described in the book Applebee’s America to get out the vote.

The book details how the Bush campaign used sophisticated marketing tactics to identify and motivate new voters to cast their ballot for Bush. By layering typical demographic data with psychographic data, they could identify Bush voters with near certainty. Based on 30 some indicators such as magazine subscriptions, what television shows you watched, whether or not you owned a gun, or a boat, and a host of other lifestyle factors, the Bush campaign found new votes in areas that past campaigns ignored because they were considered Democratic turf.

After identifying your voters, you match up those voters with people like them from the campaign to convince them to support the candidate. Peer to peer. As the Time magazine article points out, the Obama campaign did precisely that: “Veterans call veterans, high school students call high school students and so forth.”

Such a strategy makes plenty of sense on its face, but it is likely much more effective with Millennials. From pages 232-233 of Millennials Rising:

Millennial teens are very interested in voting–though less interested in actually pursuing politics or government as a career. They’re deeply distrustful of the media. They get their political information less through the usual adult news sources than through comedy shows (candidate appearances on Jay Leno or David Letterman leave quite an impression), internet web sites and chat rooms, and–especially–conversations with one another. [Emphasis mine.]

The short of it is word-of-mouth marketing works best among Millennials because they trust one another more than they trust any other source.

Consider the recent Pew Internet & American Life Project . [PDF] about teens’ use of social media reveals that the youths that are most active online, content creators, are also more likely to spend more face-time with their friends. By tapping into these teens , the Obama campaign is harnessing the youth who are most most savvy at, and the most likely to help, campaign online. They are naturals at using the ready-made online campaign infrastructure of social networking sites like and . And they are using the very people who are most influential among their peers and the most likely to get their peers to the polls because they are organizers.

From a cultural standpoint, if Barack Obama’s youth vote doesn’t fail him–and we should find out if the trend continues tomorrow in New Hampshire–it will affect not only our political life but it will mark the beginning of the end of the Boomers’ cultural dominance.

From a marketing point of view, the Obama campaign may provide a textbook case of micro-targeting, peer-to-peer lifestyle marketing in action.

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About David Erickson

David Erickson is principal of e-Strategy Media, a digital marketing consultancy based in Minnesota. David has extensive experience in digital marketing and is often used as an expert source by media and asked to speak on the topic before organizations and to sit on panel discussions.

4 Comments

  1. Mike Connery on January 9, 2008 at 4:56 00 pm CDT

    Indeed, there is a generational and political shift occurring, but Obama did not start it, he’s merely riding it. The shift began in 2003 when the oldest Millennials created dozens of institutions to get out the youth vote where the party and old institutions like Rock the Vote had been dropping the ball for years.

    I’ve actually written a book about this phenomenon:

    Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority

    http://www.amazon.com/Youth-Power-Building-Tomorrows-Progressive/dp/0978843134/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s;=books&qid;=1199894134&sr;=8-1



  2. Mike Connery on January 9, 2008 at 9:56 57 am CDT

    Indeed, there is a generational and political shift occurring, but Obama did not start it, he’s merely riding it. The shift began in 2003 when the oldest Millennials created dozens of institutions to get out the youth vote where the party and old institutions like Rock the Vote had been dropping the ball for years.

    I’ve actually written a book about this phenomenon:

    Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority

    http://www.amazon.com/Youth-Power-Building-Tomorrows-Progressive/dp/0978843134/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1199894134&sr=8-1



  3. Lauren Davis on January 10, 2008 at 9:08 00 pm CDT

    I think the push of Millennial votes is a tribute to my generation. I think the advantage candidates have when campaigning to generation Yers is the most effective and has the broadest reach. Ive seen business’, employers, advertisers, and researchers utilizing technology and the savvyness of millennials to their full advantage. Viral messaging and blogging have created boundless enterprises in reaching the masses. In fact, I work with Cambria Suites and they too are connecting to their millennials in the same fashion. Check out http://www.roomforyourimagination.com for their incredible concept and hilarious video, I especially enjoy room 224, so check it out when you’re at the site.



  4. Lauren Davis on January 10, 2008 at 2:08 55 pm CDT

    I think the push of Millennial votes is a tribute to my generation. I think the advantage candidates have when campaigning to generation Yers is the most effective and has the broadest reach. Ive seen business’, employers, advertisers, and researchers utilizing technology and the savvyness of millennials to their full advantage. Viral messaging and blogging have created boundless enterprises in reaching the masses. In fact, I work with Cambria Suites and they too are connecting to their millennials in the same fashion. Check out http://www.roomforyourimagination.com for their incredible concept and hilarious video, I especially enjoy room 224, so check it out when you’re at the site.