Campaigns use social networking, new media to reach young voters
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 22, 2008 - On a recent conference call with Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, student leader Lucinda Housley remembers a conversation about ways to reach young voters.
In past elections, that might mean strategy sessions on how to make the most out of campus visits, phone calls and more recently mass e-mails. But in the span of one election cycle the communication landscape has changed. Social networking is now a cultural force, and political campaigns are taking note.
McCain's is no exception. Housley, chair of the campaign's Missouri youth team and a law student at the University of Missouri, said the buzz on the conference call was about "McCainSpace," the campaign's online networking community (and a take-off on the popular social networking site MySpace).
On the site, students can set up a profile, post pictures and chat with other young McCain supporters. Each state has an online forum where people discuss campaign events or share links to news articles. Contributors can also write blog entries that appear on the site.
With the launch of its social networking site last year, Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign began giving its supporters similar chances to communicate online. MyBarackObama allows young people a chance to customize a profile, plan campaign events, write blog posts and help raise money.
Besides hosting their own social networks, both campaigns have a presence -- both officially and unofficially -- on MySpace, Facebook and other sites. Housley, who works closely with students in Missouri's College Republican network, said these sites offer campaigns a platform to reach a wide, and typically young, audience.
"I'm not saying because people get involved in a social network they are going to vote," she said. "But it's something that sparks the interest of college students who are following the campaign."
How the presidential campaigns communicate with young voters in these final weeks before Election Day could go a long way toward determining who wins their support. And though it will be hard to measure how enthusiasm generated through new methods of networking translates into votes, both candidates want to be seen as in touch with young voters.
Texting and tweets
For the campaigns, it's not just about social networking. Candidates who used to rely on young people watching television advertisements can now spread their message informally through more personal forms of media. They are reaching members of the "millennial" generation through text messages, tweets (short messages that can reach cell phones), and online video and audio.
Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), said campaign Web sites have become much more sophisticated since the 2004 election cycle, and communication coordinators have learned the importance of giving young supporters a place to share user-generated content.
"It's about reaching out to young people where they live," said Ellen Shearer, a Northwestern University journalism professor, and director and bureau chief of the Medill News Service. "They've always been the forgotten or ignored demographic in terms of candidate outreach."
Shearer co-authored a study about media and the millennial generation that is instructive for campaign strategists. Young people often click away from electronic news online because the sites "bombard them with too much information and too many choices," the study found.
Along with understanding the "keep it simple" message, Shearer said the communication coordinators should pay attention to another finding: Young people differentiate between information coming from news sources, as opposed to content from campaigns and advocacy groups. They see social networking as a way to meet people and share ideas, she said, but they still generally turn to media outlets to get their news.
In other words, if young people want to find long-form journalism or engage in a political debate, they are likely to move off campaign-sponsored message boards and onto news sites that attract readers across the political spectrum.
There's also anecdotal evidence from other studies that young people still respond well to the traditional telephone calls and personal visits from campaign representatives. But many teen- and 20-something voters have cell phones, not landlines.
That's where text messaging comes in -- though for campaigns it's a balancing act between keeping people in the loop and inundating them with too much information.
Jordan Aibel, speaker of the Student Union Senate at Washington University, said that the 2008 campaign comes at a time when young people are engaged in sites like Facebook but also are keeping an eye on the traditional sources of information.
"There's a lot of interaction with new-age media, but there's still lots of students who are reaching out to newspapers and showing up at (political) meetings," Aibel said.
Campuses and Beyond
Groups that are focused on ramping up youth voting numbers spend much of their time trying to energize students. Rock the Vote, which brings bands and popular artists on tour to attract young people to voter registration drives, takes its tour bus to colleges across the country. In the final full month of the campaign, most of the stops are in potential swing states, including an Oct. 2 visit to Washington University and St. Louis Community College's Meramec campus.
For these get-out-the-vote groups, visiting college campuses makes sense given their high concentration of young people.
Research from CIRCLE shows that people who have taken at least one college course are far more likely to vote than those who have never enrolled in college. (The latter is a group that constitutes roughly half of the under-30 population). On Super Tuesday 2008, for instance, one in four eligible young voters with college experience voted, compared with one in 14 eligible young voters with no college experience, according to estimates.
Kate Lewis, chair of voter registration and voter protection for the Washington University Law Democrats, said students in St. Louis are an important group for the Obama campaign as it tries to win the under-30 vote. (Her group is focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and training law students about campaign voter protection.)
Many expect Obama to have a significant edge over McCain in the student vote nationwide. But less clear is how he'll fare with the non-student population.
Campaigns struggle to reach teenagers and 20-somethings who have never been affiliated with a campus, in part because they are typically less tied to accessible networks of other young people. Kiesa, the CIRCLE researcher, said her group is piloting a project about how politicians can best reach the non-college demographic. (The results have yet to be released.)
Rick Puig, president of the Young Democrats of Missouri, said his group and others have yet to find the answer.
"It's a struggle," he said. "When you have a finite amount of time and limited resources, you go to the place that gives you more bang for your buck -- high-density youth areas like high school and college campuses."
Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis. To reach him, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.
Elia Powers Beacon staff