How Can Political Marketers Win With Young Voters?

Political marketing to young voters is big business. One report suggests that parties spent more than $100 million marketing to youth groups in 2010. And it’s no wonder why: Politicians who want to win the White House in 2016 need to engage teens—and they need to do it soon. After all, today’s 15-to-19 year olds will help elect the next president.

Winning the votes of young people will require more than just advertising dollars. Low voter turnout means that convincing Millennials that Candidate X is the right person for the job is just half the battle. Only 45% of 18-to-29 year olds voted in the 2012 election.

The challenges facing political marketers mirror those that every marketer grapples with when it comes to engaging with young people. That’s why political marketing is a great source of insight for both business and marketing leaders. 



The battle to win the votes of teens starts now. Here are three things political parties and their marketing teams need to do in order to resonate with this group. 

Listen before you preach 

Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats have a natural advantage in attracting young voters. The progressive view of Millennials suggests that their views are more aligned with liberal philosophy. Compared to their parents, these voters carry a more left-of-center view on marriage equality, women’s rights, marijuana legalization and environmental protection. 

But, while Obama won these voters by a huge margin in 2008, exit polls suggest that Romney made inroads in 2012. Today, Republicans and Libertarians are already making a bigger play for young voters for 2016. 

In fact, economic issues could give Republicans the edge this year and in 2016. Teens today have lived through a weak economy in the last several years under a Democratic president. This is a generation with a historically high unemployment rate, at the same time that they have taken on higher debt loads and are increasingly subsidizing entitlement programs protected as sacrosanct by Democrats. 

When it comes to the teen vote, all bets are off. The political loyalties of this generation are unsettled. Both Democrats and Republicans will have to talk to these voters—instead of going by old assumptions—to gain a more accurate, holistic picture of the issues that matter to them. Voter engagement will help inform policies, while also ensuring that the most pressing issues get prioritized. 

Stay ahead of the tech game 

Online outreach, micro-targeting and a smart “ground game” will be essential in 2016. This was Obama’s secret weapon against Romney in 2012, putting swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia out of reach. Obama’s digital analytics campaign (code-named Narwhal) was far more successful than Romney’s ill-fated Orca campaign, which flopped on Election Day when its app malfunctioned and its servers wouldn’t accept traffic. 

Republicans pledge to make up this “digital divide” in 2016. However, technology alone will not win the battle: both parties will have to understand and speak Millennials’ language on these tech platforms. Talking to a community of voters online, politicians can maximize the use of technology in mobilizing their young supporters.  

Understand teens’ media consumption 

Communicating with teens via social media will be more of a necessity than a nice-to-have. Candidates will have to learn how to use social media, memes and viral campaigns to spread their message—without having them backfire. It’s a tough line to walk: online ads need to be provocative enough to attract interest, but not so provoking that they turn people off. More importantly, candidates need to be authentic and approachable online without seeming too coached, or (on the other extreme) too “human” and inappropriate. Teens’ use of social media is shifting too, so keeping up with the latest platform will also be an issue. 

Social media is just part of the puzzle. Candidates will also need to understand how these voters consume TV, radio, mobile/tablet and print media. To optimize the use of their advertising dollars, political marketers need a long-term view of how teens access and consume information. 

Teens may not vote nearly as much as older adults, but they are still the voters of tomorrow; they are the people who can support a political party with their time, money and votes for the next 50+ years. The party that can best engage younger voters could gain the keys to the Senate in 2014 and win the White House in 2016, while achieving a sustainable advantage in the election cycles to follow.

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