While national attention is rightly focused on the 2020 primary race, that hasn’t stopped preparations for the general election in November.
As with every election, people will focus on youth turnout, especially since young voters are a bloc of the voting population that trends more liberal than older Americans.
NextGen America, founded by now-presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is putting resources behind a new expansion effort in 11 battleground states.
In Iowa, that means a $3.5 million investment, which will go toward 16 full-time field organizers to work with people ages 18-35 at college campuses and in communities. The goal for Iowa is to register 14,000 people and commit 12,000 to vote.
“We’re trying to have as many conversations as we can,” said Max Slafer, organizing director for NextGen Iowa.
The youth voter turnout program will specifically target President Donald Trump, Sen. Joni Ernst and U.S. Rep. Steve King.
Slafer said the most effective way to engage potential voters is individual interactions. For young people, that also means online and through their phones. Expanding the staff will expand the organization’s ability to do that.
Part of NextGen America’s approach is to recruit micro-influencers, use digital ads and partner with digital brands that already have young voters’ attention.
NextGen has hosted mock caucuses to familiarize students with the unique, first-in-the-nation process.
The organization has operated in Iowa since 2014 and in all that time, especially in the 2018 midterm elections, organizers learned what works.
In 2018, NextGen Iowa grew to 58 staff and had more than 800 volunteers. The strategy then was similar: go where the voters are, start early and reach out frequently.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In 2018, NextGen Iowa registered 14,243 people to vote. Of the voters organized by NextGen, 63% of them turned out to vote.
Slafer said there’s a growing enthusiasm among young people.
“I think students who have already been a little bit motivated by the 2016 election are beginning to think, who may have been apolitical before, but are now looking for a way to get involved,” he said. “We’re really seeing that transformation here in Iowa with voters that we’re in contact with. The transformation from somebody who’s apolitical to somebody who’s becoming a true activist.”
Focusing on the issues is part of the conversations NextGen has with young people. Beyond education about where and how to vote, NextGen volunteers talk with potential voters about issues that impact them like climate change, college affordability and health care.
In October 2018, the Washington Post did a study to find out what young voters care about. They found that social issues like abortion, race and immigration are those most likely to inspire young people.
And last November, voter turnout across the country reached a record high, particularly among 18- to 29-year-olds. According to the Census Bureau, 36% of voters in the midterms belonged to that age group.
In Iowa, 37.7% of those in the 18-24 age range voted. The next age bracket [25-34], had a turnout of 40.8%. Both of those brackets were behind all the others, but they still represented an increase from voter turnout in the 2014 midterms., when only 23.6% of 18-24-year-olds voted and 30.5% of those in the 25-34 age range voted.
Slafer said NextGen’s efforts were well-received so far, and they’ve seen increasing energy from people who want to be part of the process.
“Students and young people, age 18-35, they’re engaged,” he said. “They’re motivated. They want to see an impact now. And they’re looking for outlets in which to get involved.”
That involvement, he said, goes beyond registering to vote. The people NextGen has worked with have also volunteered to knock doors, register others to vote and canvass.
“There seems to have been an awakening among voters that we’ve been speaking to,” Slafer said. “And with that awakening has come a new surge of activism. There’s a new sense of urgency that we’ve been seeing on the ground.”
Brit Bender, state director for NextGen Iowa, said many of the tactics will stay the same as last year, especially with voter registration and the pledge to vote programs.
“We want to start getting them engaged early so they’ll continue to vote throughout the year,” Bender said. “With fall 2020, it’s going to be a lot of just educating on who the progressive candidates are, what are the policies that are on the ballot, and what does it mean to actually vote in this important presidential election where we do have a lot at stake.”
At the end of the day, she said, young people are the future of the country and if they want a country that reflects them, they should vote for it.
“We need to make sure that we have fresh voices, so we need younger candidates and we need younger people to vote on the things that matter to them,” Bender said. “I think that young voters are a huge voting bloc that is not always tapped into by candidates and I think that’s a big mistake. Young voters are really passionate and really educated and tend to know exactly what they’re looking for.”
By Nikoel Hyrek