How Parties Mobilize Youth

How Parties Mobilize Youth

Youth mobilization infographic

In 2013, Elections Canada asked Samara to explore what we know about how political parties engage young people in Canada and in similar countries. Why? Election Canada's National Youth Survey Report showed that, among young people, the likelihood of voting was 15 percentage points higher for those who were directly contacted by a political party or candidate than for those who were not.

The result was a literature review on party engagement of youth in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Finland. Below is a summary of some of the key findings.

Engaging youth can be challenging, but there are important benefits to doing so

There are three main challenges to engaging and mobilizing youth: 1) they are harder to contact than older citizens; 2) they often lack partisan attachments; and 3) they may not be interested in political activity or their interests and priorities may be seen to be different from older age groups.

But research suggests that the benefits of engaging youth can outweigh the costs. These include long-term electoral advantages. Without strong partisan identities, youth votes are potentially winnable. This creates room for parties to think strategically about mobilization. Recruiting youth to work on campaigns offers an initial step toward cultivating a sense of loyalty to the party. Parties may risk long-term decline if they fail to reach out to a new generation of supporters.

Youth can be mobilized – but not all mobilization tactics are equally effective

Research on the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactics of parties and grassroots organizations focuses primarily on the United States. This research draws upon findings from both partisan and non-partisan GOTV efforts and across different age demographics,. Studies there have shown that the most effective GOTV tactic is door-to-door canvassing. Researchers have found an increase in turnout of between 7 and 10 percentage points in response to face-to-face contact. One study in the United States found that direct contact with young voters boosts their probability of voting by 18.1 percentage points. The research also suggests that its the personal interaction that matters more than the type of message that is being used to encourage people to vote. There is also some evidence that young people are the most effective at reaching out to their peers, and that young people may be more likely to be persuaded by their peers telling them that it is their duty to vote than by partisan campaigns or messages encouraging them to select a particular candidate. The lesson is simple – if parties and grassroots organizations wish to mobilize young people, they need to go and speak to them directly.

Other tactics can also be effective, although it isn't always clear what their impact is on youth specifically. Text messages can have a positive impact – in one study, reminders increased turnout by 3.1 points. Social media can also have a powerful effect. In an experiment during the 2010 congressional elections, researchers directed non-partisan GOTV messages to 61 million Facebook users and found that a single message may have been responsible for 0.60% of the growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010. Put another way, that's 340,000 people who turned out as a result of one message!

Phone calls can have a positive impact, although they tend to be more effective when made personal in tone by volunteers rather than scripted call-centre workers (automated telephone calls, in contrast, seem to have no significant effect on turnout). For calls, quality and tone matters. Direct mail also seems to be least effective.

GOTV efforts are best undertaken close to the date of an election.

Learning from other countries

Of the countries reviewed in the study, Finland emerged as a leading example of youth engagement, where all of the main parties provide meaningful ways for youth to be involved and influence party life. The United States appears to be the main innovator in terms of partisan mobilization. Non-partisan mobilization is also highly advanced in the United States, and researchers are regularly involved in GOTV experiments.

Recommendations for researchers

Research on this topic in Canada is still in its infancy, and there are many areas that require further exploration. These include:

  • An audit of how parties and candidates engage youth to identify best practices and opportunities.
  • An audit of the mobilization efforts undertaken by grassroots organizations. How are non-profit groups engaging youth, and what lessons can be drawn from their efforts?
  • Experimental studies on the costs and effectiveness of both partisan and non-partisan mobilization strategies in the Canadian context.

More on Youth

Message Not Received header

Over the last 30 years, Canadians have watched with concern as voting rates among younger people have declined, with the result that in the 2011 federal election, the majority of young people opted not to cast a vote. If the number of non-voters increases, the legitimacy of Canada’s democratic process may someday be called into question. Besides, if groups of Canadians are not considered to be interested voters, will political parties and leaders prioritize their views during and outside of elections?

The low voting rate among younger Canadians is often viewed as evidence that young people today are more apathetic or lazy than any other generation before. That—more than other generations—they don’t care about politics and aren’t interested in the world.

“Message Not Delivered” debunks these myths.

Read the entire report and key findings here. 


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