The youth vote—a unicorn worth hunting in 2016

As a college student soon to vote in my first presidential election, I am always perplexed by what seems to be an odd paradox: all candidates clamor for the “youth vote,” and tout it is as a symbol of great importance indicative of their broad appeal and general viability, yet, in academic circles and a majority of intellectual political coverage, many deride the notion that the youth vote matters much at all, given how youth today are disproportionately outvoted by older generations, and have poor turnout historically.

For a long time, the youth vote was derided for its overvalued position in the hierarchy of campaign targets; it was a mirage—best given lip service and then left unpursued as the resources necessary to secure it wouldn’t be worth the reward. At least, this was the predominant discourse until Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Energy: Trump EPA finalizes rule to kill Obama climate plan | Trump officials delayed releasing docs on Yellowstone superintendent's firing | Democrats probe oil companies' role in fuel rule rollback Overnight Energy: Trump EPA finalizes rule to kill Obama climate plan | Trump officials delayed releasing docs on Yellowstone superintendent's firing | Democrats probe oil companies' role in fuel rule rollback House Democrats investigate oil companies' involvement in fuel standards rollback MORE came along and showed definitively that treating the youth vote—normally considered the votes of those 18-29 years old—with insouciance, can and will, in some cases, prove deadly for a campaign.


In short, the youth vote has been over-hyped, but it has also mattered a great deal in recent electoral cycles, and it could matter a deceptive amount in 2016. The empirical truth appears to be that young people can indeed sway the outcome of elections, if only they are targeted intentionally. If after all of that, you still believe that the political science orthodoxy of denigrating the youth vote’s importance will hold true, ask yourself: how often has that same orthodoxy been correct so far this cycle?

So, even if you still believe the youth vote to be a unicorn unworthy of hunting, entertain the following thought experiment: should you wish to wrangle this elusive unicorn, how should you go about doing so? What’s the way to the heart of the youth voter? As a millennial myself, allow me to proffer some suggestions.

I believe we can model the preferences of many youth using a two-part paradigm: what we look for in policy, and what we prefer in our politics.

In pondering policies most suitable for garnering youth support, the key is to not trivialize younger generations. The average youth voter is not a one-track-mind political imbecile, attracted to handouts like free college education as cats are to shiny objects. We care about the same issues that all generation do—economic stability, national security, safe communities, etc.—and ignoring these traditional issues in crafting a youth-attracting platform propagates a pejorative and frankly inaccurate view of youth voters as apathetic sheep. Thus, to win over the youth, don't neglect the standard key issues, but also, endeavor to understand that some political preferences—like a pivot towards renewable energy and police use of body cameras—are commonly preferred by young voters. Pairing a non-patronizing tone with well researched policy proposals of particular interest to young voters is the key to the policy side of this unicorn-hunting equation.

When it comes to politics, the two main candidates this year personify a how-to guide to scaring away the young voter unicorn. Millennials may devote ridiculous attention to the likes of Kim Kardashian, but we are not so ignorant as to believe she would make a good president. Young voters want a candidate who will walk a fine line between displaying a temperament that befits a commander and chief, and also appearing somewhat human. Trump exemplifies a failure to fulfill the first part of that equation; insulting the wife of one’s primary opponent is the antithesis of what it means to be presidential. Clinton, on the other hand, epitomizes a lack of relatability, and young voters—ever adept at social media and cognizant of popular trends—can smell a painfully robotic attempt at appearing human—like the cringe-worthy pandering that shown through in Clinton’s Pokemon Go joke—a mile away. Both of the primary candidates seem to be doing their best to scare away the youth voter unicorn; however, our demands really aren’t that difficult to meet—show some decorum and respect for the office being pursued, but avoid nauseating degrees of pandering.

The youth vote alone will not determine the outcome of the election in November, but to ignore it entirely as a worthless pursuit may doom either candidate. The youth voter unicorn is quite real, and not as hard to catch as you may think.

Paul Jeffries is a Global Scholar at American University’s School of International Service, specializing in International Political Economy. Follow him on Twitter, @MonsieurPaulJ