How Do Presidential Candidates' Messages Resonate With Teens?

The 2016 presidential election is unlike any we’ve seen. While most teenagers may not be able to vote, many are paying attention, playing a part and participating in the political process. Given the impact the government can have on young people’s lives, this makes sense. And, given the fact that political opinions are shaped in youth, gauging teens’ thinking today can help shed light on their future activities.

In this political season it’s hard to find anyone of any age who doesn’t have some opinion or perspective on the current crop of candidates. But how do young people form and act on their political ideas and beliefs and how well are the campaigns promoting their positions that might appeal to young people? 

To try to figure this out, I decided to look at the sites of the major candidates — and specifically at the issues/positions pages — to see what is being highlighted and to imagine how each might resonate with young voters.



Jeb Bush

  • Safer
    • Defeating ISIS
    • Defense
    • Veterans
  • Stronger
    • Jobs
    • Tax Plan
    • Health Care
  • Freer
    • Reforming Washington
    • Regulatory Reform
    • Restoring States’ Rights
  • Other
    • Drug Control
    • Cybersecurity
    • Education

Jeb Bush doesn’t really have anything to say to young people specifically. Sure, what young person doesn’t want to feel safer, stronger and freer – but there’s not much here that is going to hook at teenager.

Hillary Clinton

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Campaign Finance Reform
  • Campus Sexual Assault
  • Climate Change and Energy
  • College

Rather than prioritizing her priorities (if you know what I mean) the Clinton campaign takes the easy root by alphabetizing her issues. It’s hard to imagine that a teen landing on her site would be drawn into the issue of Alzheimer’s disease. Campus sexual assault, on the other hand, is an issue that matters more to young people.

Ted Cruz

  • Restore the Constitution
  • Second Amendment Rights
  • Secure the Border
  • Defend our Nation
  • Stand with Israel

Ted Cruz doesn’t appear to have young people in mind as a specific group or demographic. His issues may appeal to them in as much as they might appeal to anyone. Overall, his site’s issues skew toward things that need to be fixed. For me, it’s a pretty pessimistic place. 

Martin O’Malley

  • Worker’s Bill of Rights
  • American Cities and Communities
  • Keeping America Safe
  • Healthcare 
  • Veterans and Military Families

O’Malley presents a safe and general set of priorities, none seemingly there to help the candidate appeal to the youth vote. It all feels very safe and familiar with no effort to break out with a message capable of attracting and holding people’s attention.

Marco Rubio

  • Families – Promoting Strong Families
  • Farmers – Getting Government Out of the Way of American’s Farmers
  • Gun Owners – Protecting the Sacred Rights of America’s Gun Owners
  • Seniors – Protecting America’s Senior Citizens
  • Small Business Owners – How Marco will Stand Up for Small Business Owners

It’s interesting that, like Cruz above and Trump below, Rubio features guns as one of his top priorities. Overall, his list doesn’t seem to have anything that is going to get teenagers interested and excited about his campaign.

Bernie Sanders

  • Income and Wealth Inequality
  • It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free
  • Getting Big Money Out of Politics and Restoring Democracy
  • Creating Decent Paying Jobs
  • A Living Wage

Sanders is doing well among young people and some of his issues help explain this fact. Making college free and debt free is certainly one, as are a living wage and decent jobs. 

Aside from their main site, the campaign recently launched a site, “Prove Them Wrong,” which aims to get young people to pledge to participate in the Iowa Caucus. In that state, anyone who will be 18 by Election Day is eligible to caucus. The site itself is interesting in a few ways. First, it features strong underdog messaging: “They say you don’t care,” “They say you won’t caucus,” “They say Bernie can’t win,” “Prove them wrong.” The site is light on content but does feature the ability for visitors to choose one of five color palettes. Go figure.

Donald Trump

  • U.S.-China Trade Reform
  • Veterans Administration Reforms
  • Tax Reform
  • Second Amendment Rights
  • Immigration Reform

Trump, too, doesn’t seem to have much to say for teenager or other young voters. Will his policies — were he to be elected — impact young people? Obviously, but little is said that seems calculated to bring newly eligible voters onto the bandwagon.

It’s true that most teens aren’t going to be able to vote, but it’s also true that there is a lot of pent-up power and potential in Gen Z. They will be living with the consequences of this election and it’s interesting to see how few of the candidates are actively seeking to engage with this audience.

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