Lil Jon and Co. Are in a Stalemate in the Fight for Youth Turnout

Young voters didn't show up at the polls this week. There could be a way to change that.

It's become a depressing reality in politics: Another midterm election, another round of numbers showing abysmal young-voter turnout.

Only 21.3 percent of eligible voters aged 18-29 voted Tuesday, according to estimates from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. While that's higher (by nearly a percentage point) than CIRCLE's early estimates from the last midterms, in 2010, it's still far below the 41.2 percent of young people who voted in 2012's presidential election.

It's not for lack of trying. The hipster celebrity-packed music video "Turn Out for What," from veteran youth-outreach organization Rock the Vote, garnered nearly a million views on YouTube in its effort to get young people to the polls. But the youth turnout rate has stubbornly stayed at roughly 22 percent—or about one in five young voters—in every midterm election since they started doing exit polling. For all the commendable efforts of these groups, their methods just aren't doing enough to maximize turnout.

Part of the issue is this: 18-to-29-year-olds aren't all the same. Peter Levine, a citizenship and public-affairs professor at Tufts University and the director of CIRCLE, told National Journal that unlike seniors—many of whom are on Medicare and who all receive Social Security—there isn't one rallying issue that unites young people.

"We sometimes think of young people as college students," Levine said. "But a very significant number are parents of young children, so they're more concerned about kindergarten than they are about college. Forty percent haven't gone to any kind of college at all, even for one semester. About a quarter are dropping out of high school. But on the other hand, some of them are getting Ph.D.'s."

It's difficult for traditional political advertising to resonate with all of these varied voter profiles, and nearly impossible when they don't share one ideology. Aside from being diverse racially and socioeconomically, young voters can't be pegged as entirely Democrat or wholly loyal to the GOP.

They can't always agree on pop culture, either, but it's certainly a more fruitful effort. Rock the Vote's slick music video parody-cum-voter engagement vehicle employed an array of celebrities that young people generally like: Lil Jon appeals to the rap set, Lena Dunham has the hipster feminists on lock, everyone loves Whoopi Goldberg. It's a strategy they've used since 1992, when Madonna wrapped herself in an American flag in their first national spot.

The group's president, Ashley Spillane, told National Journal that Rock the Vote plans to build on what she called the momentum from this year's YouTube success. She's focusing on the positive news that young voters increased their share of the electorate.

"In a year where young people faced so many challenges," Spillane said, "particularly around restrictive voting laws, and a deeply cynical narrative around their participation, it's actually a real testament to their commitment to the democratic process that so many of them turned out to vote."

More young people voting is, of course, Rock the Vote's goal. But with midterm youth turnout essentially stagnant for decades, it's hard to tell if popular outreach efforts are actually working. To really have a chance at engaging young voters, Levine said, they need to be more dynamic.

"Outreach is more effective if it's interactive," he said. "One, it communicates that somebody cares, the person who's making the contact. And two, it allows them to personalize what they need, because one young person may not know how to vote, how to register. Another one may not know which candidate stands where, or may know the candidate's position but not be persuaded."

Whether the interaction is face-to-face, over the phone, or via social media, Levine said what matters is the genuine conversation between the person doing the outreach and the young voter. Advertising can't adapt to its audience, so while that form of political outreach may motivate some millennials to get to the polls, it'll fall flat with others.

Door-to-door campaigning and phone solicitations—what Levine calls the ground war—are very expensive. And compared with massive, super PAC-backed campaign machines, the nonprofits geared toward youth-voter outreach are drastically underfunded. Pointed, interactive youth-voter outreach works, but it needs to be to scale to all of the other get-out-the-vote efforts. Perhaps in 2016, Lil Jon can knock on college-dorm doors instead.