Rock the vote? Maybe not

Glitzy voter-registration drives are wooing apathetic young voters with celebrities and flashy Web sites. But 18- to 24-year-olds may be too jaded and media-saturated to respond to anything except appeals from other young people -- real, live ones.

Published April 23, 2004 9:02PM (EDT)

Outside Manhattan's Irving Plaza rock club on a recent spring evening, a young, excited crowd wrapped around the block, waiting to get into a sold-out show by emo poster boys Ben Kweller and Death Cab for Cutie. Megan Brown, 18, made her way down the line, asking "Are you registered?" and carrying a clipboard full of voter registration forms with a "Rock the Vote" sticker on the back. Petite, with a thick, curly ponytail, Brown rocks the vote at "street team" events like these at least twice a month.

"This is the first activity I haven't put on college applications," says the high school senior. "I'm concerned about what's happening to the country. I really feel like it's something I'm doing for me." Rock the Vote loves volunteers like Brown: Not only is she a young hipster in an Urban Outfitters T-shirt, she's cheerful, approachable and undaunted by giggly rejections ("I'm only 12!" one Death Cab fan protests). She only registers four or five of the 200-odd people on the sidewalk, including a 39-year-old ticket scalper, but the personal contact, she says, makes her feel like she's making a difference.

Over the past 13 years, the independent nonprofit Rock the Vote, with MTV (and its corporate parent, Viacom) as a prominent sponsor, has laid down the blueprint for today's high-profile register-to-vote crusades: a flashy Web presence, TV and print public service announcements, and celebrity-studded live events. But do media-focused campaigns like these work -- or is the strategy about as effective as glitter lipstick on a donkey? New independent research from CIRCLE, the foremost not-for-profit youth-and-politics think tank, turns that strategy on its head. According to CIRCLE's research, a personal approach, like Megan Brown's, garners more results from postmillennial marketing-inured kids than a celebrity come-on.

Wooing the much coveted 18-to 24-year-old demographic is always a priority for candidates (and an incredibly daunting task: youth turnout in national elections has declined by 13 percent since 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote), but this year it's more important than ever. There's the sheer size of Gen Y, for one: There are 24 million citizens between 18 and 24, slightly more than in 2000. And they're seemingly up for grabs: a whopping 41 percent identify as independent, while the rest skew more Democrat than Republican -- but the difference is slight. Perhaps as a result of the 2000 election, when it became apparent that a handful of votes does, actually, mean something, the demo seems more likely to vote this year. A survey this fall by Harvard University's Institute of Politics found 75 percent of college students were registered to vote and 82 percent of those said they planned to vote this year, compared with 75 percent in 2000.

And for the first time in 2004, groups aimed at very different sections of the 18-to-30 demographic are uniting in one massive crusade against the scourge of political apathy. MTV's series of newsy, political specials, called Choose or Lose, WWE's self-dubbed "pro-social public relations campaign" Smackdown Your Vote!, independent nonprofit Rock the Vote, hip-hop culture impresario Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and sitcom mogul Norman Lear's Declare Yourself youth voting campaign all announced in February that they will join in the 20 Million Loud Campaign for 2004 -- an umbrella campaign for these voter-registration drives that also includes nonprofits like the League of Women Voters and the Youth Vote Coalition. MTV news specials, concerts and events, contests and giveaways will all appear under the 20 Million Loud rubric, and the campaign will cross-promote with events like the Wrestlemania tour and a new reality show on Showtime (also owned by MTV parent Viacom) called "American Candidate" in which contestants will compete to win support for a real run for office. Twenty Million Loud's participating organizations will share Rock the Vote's online voter registration tool, and one goal: to increase youth voter turnout by 2 million votes over the 2000 election, to 20 million, the number that voted in 1992.

Though 20 million may sound like an impressive goal, it's merely the same raw number of voters 18 to 30 who made it to the polls in 1992, the last year a candidate gave real attention to wooing the youth vote, with the help of MTV. Bill Clinton, the hip, energetic "Boy from Hope," gave the first nationally televised interview of his campaign to MTV's 24-year-old Tabitha Soren. People hooted when Clinton blew his sax and answered the "boxers or briefs?" question, but these antics were part of a serious appeal to youth on issues of higher education, national service, gay rights, health insurance, and change for America. Over a million new young voters registered in that election season -- 350,000 by Rock the Vote alone. And turnout among those 18 to 24 surged 20 percent, with the overwhelming margin going for Clinton. In a post-election poll of 18- to 29-year-olds, 12 percent said that MTV's coverage directly influenced their vote. Today, Rock the Vote's Web site still counts 1992 as its most successful year.

So with a combined budget of several million dollars, and with interest in the 2004 election unusually high, why haven't the groups in 20 Million Loud set their voter turnout goals higher than the peak of 12 years ago? Maybe Gen Y is too inured to celebrity and marketing for the glitz-and-glamour approach. "There's a little bit of a mythology surrounding media and celebrity-driven campaigns," says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, who has published research with CIRCLE, the nonpartisan think tank. "Rock the Vote, for example, has increasingly moved in this direction. But there's no systematic evidence that this kind of mass-mediated message aimed at young people works." A comment posted on MTV's own Choose or Lose Web site points out that young people are far from easily swayed by star power. "I think that celebs need to shut their mouths," wrote Adam, 22, from Orlando, Fla. "Just because they are famous does not give them the right to tell America what to think."

It turns out Hoobastank and Maroon 5, Rock the Vote's poster bands this year, have less credibility with young people than volunteers like Megan Brown. "The one place where there is good evidence for effects on participation rates is this kind of traditional grass-roots, door-to-door, face-to-face contact," says Delli Carpini.

Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale, has published research with CIRCLE and is the author of an April book from the Brookings Institution Press called "Get Out the Vote!" "The more personal the interaction between campaign and potential voter," says Green in his book, which cites studies held across 18 states and five election years, "the more it raises a person's chances of voting." Green's studies had well trained and enthusiastic young people calling other young people or going door to door: "Hi, my name is ____, and I'm a student at Fresno State," reads one sample script. "I want to talk to you about the upcoming elections on November 5. Voting gives young people a voice. Can I count on you to come out and vote?" For younger voters, a direct request from a peer helps overcome their unfamiliarity with the political process.

In an experiment Green conducted with the Youth Vote Coalition, young people called other people ages 18 to 30 in four university towns in the days before the 2000 election, using an informal, chatty script to ask them to come out to the polls. Youth voter turnout in those towns went up 8 to 12 percent.

By contrast, online peer-to-peer "viral" methods like chatting or mass e-mails -- the main way that Rock the Vote contacts people -- and "robo-calls" by celebrities had little to no effect on turnout in other campaigns Green and his colleagues studied. "I'm not unwilling to believe that celebrities can make a difference," Green says. "I'd just like to see the evidence.

"We have reason to be skeptical," he continues. What distinguishes this generation from previous ones, he says, is that "almost all their contact with the political sphere is through impersonal means, like direct mail, mass media, radio and TV." In other words, our media-obsessed culture is more likely part of the problem of youth apathy, not part of the solution. After all, for all the talk of action and self-expression, MTV is a broadcaster, and Rock the Vote's and Smackdown your Vote!'s spokespeople are entertainers. Their goal is to "capture the youth audience," which means keeping young people at home, watching television, not out in their communities.

"We've been in this longer than anyone else, and we know what works," says Rock the Vote's director of communications, Jay Strell. "We have the cutting-edge technology and the stars that the kids know." Over 200 actors and bands, from Drew Barrymore to Bono and Puffy to Ashton Kutcher, have lent their shine to Rock the Vote PSAs. As for those "cutting-edge" marketing techniques, they include all the usual online applications: chat rooms, blogs, banner ads, and an e-mail-based "online street team" with about 3,000 members. Rock the Vote gets even more creative with corporate sponsors. Ben and Jerry's has created a new flavor for distribution at its events, dubbed "Primary Berry Graham"; Motorola is offering a series of text-message polls and "voter alerts" on participants' cellphones.

With these jazzed-up generalities, the organizations give off a vibe more commercial than political. Strell uses adspeak like "viral" and "impactable" to describe the group's strategy. By featuring their corporate sponsors so prominently, these groups reinforce the message that young people's real power is as consumers, not voters. In fact, research from CIRCLE showed that boycotting and "buycotting" -- buying products because you agree with the values of the company that made them -- were two of the most popular means for young people to express their political views. Granted, they also take practically zero effort -- but still, while fewer than 20 percent of those aged 15-25 have written a letter to Congress or attended a protest, more than 60 percent have "voted" with their allowance.

The groups all have complex business relationships to media companies: Choose or Lose is MTV's own Web site and series of news specials, while Rock the Vote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent voter registration group, of which MTV is a prominent corporate sponsor (others include Motorola, Showtime, Ben and Jerry's and 7UP). Smackdown Your Vote! involves heavy cross-promotion of its brand and the WWE "Superstars." The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, with ties to the NAACP, is the only major group in 20 Million Loud with a specific policy agenda -- an urban-focused campaign that's fighting to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, and the war on poverty. And while most of these voter registration groups skew Democratic and liberal, their messages are nonpartisan and free of too many specifics. Today, the Web sites of Rock the Vote, Smackdown Your Vote! and Choose or Lose all list general issue areas, like education, environment, and free expression, but not the names of specific lawmakers or parties. "Let the President know what you think!" exhorts, but Bush's name is nowhere to be found. Choose or Lose's surveys show an audience evenly divided among those who lean Democratic and those who lean Republican, while Smackdown's demographic is more Nascar Kid.

The primaries, on the other hand, showed both the power of peer-to-peer methods and the potential power of the youth vote for Democrats. Howard Dean's "people-powered" message appealed strongly to young voters: There were 1,133 "Generation Dean" groups, and one-quarter of his donations came from those under 30. The excitement Dean generated led to a doubling of youth voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses from 2000, although that bump did not continue, as the nomination was quickly decided and Democratic turnout in general went down. Now, some Generation Dean leaders have become campus organizers for John Kerry. For his part, Kerry appeared on his first MTV special, "20 Million Questions for John Kerry," at the end of March, giving bland props to hip-hop ("it's very important"). Because of his stance on issues like gay marriage and the war in Iraq, Kerry enjoyed a 10-point lead over Bush in the latest Harvard poll.

Young organizers who are already working to turn out voters in this election echo Green's findings about the power of the personal. Tony Cani, 25, is a graduating senior at Arizona State University who will be working on Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts this summer. He's never heard of Green's research, but he discovered the importance of the direct appeal while running the largest Generation Dean group in the nation at ASU. "I think that we're the most cynical generation ever," Cani says. "We're used to being marketed to, and it doesn't have much of an effect. You gotta make things personal, and say, 'My name is Tony, I believe in this. You should vote, what do you believe in? I'll give you a call when it's time to vote.'"

Adrienne Maree Brown, a 22-year-old organizer, is a founder of the League of Pissed-Off Voters, which is working to turn out progressive youth voters in November. She's also the co-editor of the book "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," which tells 20 stories of young people doing peer-to-peer electoral organizing. "I think it's wonderful to have celebs come out and tell young folks to get involved, to vote -- I mean we're socialized to pay attention to them more than to each other," she writes in an e-mail. "But I think it's only part of the solution -- those motivating and often non-specific words from famous folk need to be backed up by the work we're doing on the ground."

Green points out that the overwhelming majority of voters are never contacted by a campaign volunteer or local poll worker; the very novelty of the encounter inspires more trust from a jaded young person than the most well-crafted TV spot. "When you're standing on my doorstep on a rainy day in early November, there's a factor of credibility," Green says. "I take a signal from the fact that you're telling me to do this, more than your specific message. I say, she's like me, she's telling me to go vote, and she thinks it's important enough to come out and do this. That has a powerful effect."

Brown concurs. "It's the same thing as buying a hot CD -- if a friend tells you it's hot, that means more than just seeing a poster or being told by the artist -- 'cause you trust them; they aren't trying to buy and sell you, manipulate you."

To be fair, Rock the Vote doesn't completely ignore the personal touch. In April, for example, there were 73 MTV/Rock the Vote "meetups" across the country, where small groups of three to 20 discussed the issue of terrorism. Such Internet-coordinated, in-person meetings became famous during Howard Dean's presidential campaign, which held thousands of meetups all over the country each month.

Rock the Vote currently sponsors 75 "street teams" of volunteers, led by both paid and volunteer organizers, who register voters at music venues, festivals and on college campuses. New York's team, for example, has hundreds of members, and holds events about 10 days a month, including registering voters at almost every Irving Plaza show and at Union Square's Virgin Megastore. Intrepid kids can even download a packet of materials from the Web site and set up a registration table on their own, just about anywhere. To a lesser extent, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network uses ad hoc teams of volunteers to register voters at their traveling events.

But the emphasis, both in time and money, is on mass media, Web presence and the touring events over concentrated, local get-out-the-vote efforts. "The street team program is an engine for the media campaign," says Hans Riemer, Rock the Vote's political director. "It's underfunded -- the budget's a couple hundred thousand." That's out of Rock the Vote's total $5.5 million budget. Of the 300,000 voters Rock the Vote plans to register between now and November, the majority will be contacted around election time by e-mail, not with phone calls or visits.

The irony, says Delli Carpini, is that "it may be more economically efficient to spend a dollar for a young person's vote than an older person's." A canvassing campaign driven by young volunteers costs about $8 per new vote, versus $40 per vote for a direct-mail campaign.

A brand-new, innovative project might demonstrate once and for all the power of peer-to-peer in youth voting. The New Voters Project, a nonpartisan effort sponsored by the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and George Washington University, is working in six states this year using field organizers and young volunteers to register young people to vote.

Marisa DeMull, a 23-year-old working for the New Voters Project at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M., hopes to involve 160 campus volunteers by election time. "Getting actual students to register other students at their own university has been incredibly successful," DeMull says. "They tell their own personal story about why they got involved and how voting is relevant to their own lives."

The New Voters plan is to eventually contact 500,000 to 750,000 18- to 24-year-olds in the final weeks before the November election, using the strategies proven by Green's research and the PIRGs' own organizing experience. When members of the 20 Million Loud Campaign visit the New Voters Project's targeted states (Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin) the project will follow up on the people it registers with canvassing and phone calls.

In many ways, the New Voters Project marks a return to tactics of the late '60s and early '70s, when Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern drew on a grass-roots army of young volunteers and the youth vote promised, in vain, to turn conventional politics around. Maybe all it will take to rewrite history is for the kids to turn off their MTV and start talking to each other.

By Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz is NPR’s lead digital education reporter. She’s the author of two previous books, Generation Debt and DIY U.

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