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One expert explains what the media gets wrong about young voters

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets voters during a campaign event at Grand View University January 31, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets voters during a campaign event at Grand View University January 31, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of the most frequently cited statistics coming out of last week’s Iowa caucuses was the number of young Democrats — 84 percent — who threw themselves behind Bernie Sanders, according to NBC’s exit polls.

The margin of Sanders’s victory among this youngest set came as a surprise, but it confirmed a larger sense that his principled, laser-focused message has a strong appeal to younger voters. If young people continue to turn out in large numbers, their support for Sanders could prove consequential for him.

The obvious problem with counting on the youth vote is that, historically, young voters (ages 18 to 29) are the least likely to turn out. People often argue that if they voted in large numbers, their sway on elections could be decisive.

But it takes understanding what sorts of issues play well with young voters, not to mention the types of outreach that will actually work to engage them.

To better understand how the nation’s young voters are feeling ahead of 2016, I spoke to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, a researcher at Tufts University who studies youth political engagement. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Michelle Hackman: What does the media get wrong about young voters?

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg: There are a few things. I do think there is this stereotype of young people caring about just one issue — that they all vote for the same candidate or have the same party alignment. For example, the college student who supports environmental issues —that’s just one portrait.

This is the most diverse generation we’ve ever seen. Only a little over half of young people have gone to college. Not all young people are Democrats.

It really affects who gets talked to, too. If a campaign thinks a young person won’t ever vote for their candidate, maybe they won’t reach out at all. But that’s certainly not the case.

MH: How would you describe how young voters see themselves ideologically?

KKG: This generation views itself as socially progressive but also somewhat fiscally conservative. There are people who care deeply, deeply about economic inequality. There are others who really want to see Social Security funds cut.

But even compared to older millennials, there are a larger proportion of young people, say, under 25, who are actually more fiscally conservative. This is the generation that came of age during the recession. They came of age after the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

MH: Right. There is certainly a diversity of viewpoints even among young people. But are there any specific issues that appeal to these voters as a bloc?

KKG: Given their life stage, two things really stand out. One really well-reported one is college affordability. The other one is things around economic inequality. A multitude of young people do care about minimum wage and affordable health care. Of course, there’s no one issue that all young people care about.

MH: Let’s move to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Why do you think they’re supporting him?

KKG: There seems to be one theme among young people: Sanders is one person who shows authenticity and commitment. And that leads young people to believe he might follow through with his promises. He’s not known to flip-flop on his position. They might not agree with everything Sen. Sanders says, like on gun regulation, for example. But that sort of authenticity appears to be really important to young people.

Also, young people do really prioritize the position the candidate takes, and not so much the background story of a candidate or his experience. For example, the fact that Obama was black – that really wasn’t so much of a factor for them in 2008. It was more his issue statements. And the same thing is happening here. Young women are really not showing overwhelming support for Secretary Clinton.

MH: So the younger voters of 2016 really are more idealistic. Now, is it their age? Or is it really that this generation of millennials has a more idealistic mindset, and that will stick with them?

KKG: Young people for generations have been more idealistic than older voters. Generally speaking, young people, as they grow older, tend to get more conservative.

But in the '08 election, for the millennials who experienced that election as first-time voters, that pattern doesn’t seem to be holding up. That generation of young people then, the people who are now in their early 30s, are remaining really liberal. They’re defying the pattern.

If that really becomes the case, you could make the same argument with Sanders voters. Then I think that experience will carry them through. They will stay loyal to his political platform.

MH: Let’s turn to the Republican candidates. Who are young conservatives responding to?

KKG: Well, they’re still shopping around. We are seeing relatively low levels of support for Mr. Trump.

One thing that seems to not be playing well is the fear-driven policies that Mr. Trump is playing on. Because those policies — putting up a wall, banning Muslims — really exclude a lot of people in our society. There is this comfort level with racial, ethic, religious diversity, you name it. This is the generation who grew up with friends with two moms, a biracial family, a religion different than yours. So those policies don’t really play well with even conservative young people.

MH: It’s true that young Republicans are less common than young Democrats. What’s the profile of a young Republican?

KKG: They tend to be young people who are white. There’s a little bit more of a tendency for them to live in rural areas. Men are a little bit more likely to be Republican than young women. But I recently looked at the 2014 data from Pew, and there isn’t really a huge variation between young Republicans and Democrats in their levels of education. About a third of young people prefer a Republican candidate, so it’s more sizable then you’d might think.

MH: You talk a lot in your work about the importance of campaign outreach to young voters. What methods are most effective in reaching these people?

KKG: It’s sort of early in the game to know for sure. But young people really would rather see direct engagement with the candidates. So it’s important that candidates have a direct dialogue with the voters. It can be online; it doesn’t have to be in person. But it has to be genuine.

I think, in the old GOTV [get-out-the-vote] world, we thought of canvassing as the only way to have genuine contact with people. But social media has become so advanced that young people may not necessarily distinguish between what happens in person and what happens in the online world. It can be just as genuine. For example, a campaign can have a watching party and have a dialogue on site there.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data on this — that’s coming from people on the ground.