Sarah Burris

| With young voter interest on the rise, how well did the parties represent young voters at the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions? Youthiness: A DNC and RNC Convention Scorecard

Sarah Burris

September 22, 2008

(This content is distributed by Rock the Trail, a partnership between Rock the Vote and WireTap Magazine. The views expressed and reflected by the reporter do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of either Rock the Vote or WireTap. All rights reserved to Rock the Vote and Wiretap Magazine.)

Youth voter turnout increased significantly this year in all caucuses and primary elections. According to data from the Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) more than 6.5 million young people under the age of 30 participated–an increase from nine to 17 percent compared to 2004. Many of these new young voters anticipated participating and being heard at the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions. But in an election where both major parties have younger candidates on their tickets, neither party did very well at including youth voices and issues at their gatherings.

After watching both conventions, Rock the Trail determined how well or poorly each party did in representing young voters. Below is a scorecard that ranks the RNC and DNC’s overall performance in youth outreach. The rankings were calculated by oberservational data, as well as examining speeches and attendance in real time as well as via text and video transcripts.

How Many Were There?

The first category we examined was how many young delegates were invited or attended each convention. Young voters represent one forth of the eligible voters, and of those 17 percent voted in the primary and caucuses this season. However, these voters only comprised 14.9 percent, or 631 total delegates at the DNCC. The RNCC by contrast, had a total of just 42 young delegates, which represents a mere 1.76 percent of the total number of delegates at their convention.

Activities For Young Activists

Convention activities for young people represent another way to show youth involvement. The DNCC sponsored events by both Young Democrats and College Democrats in the weekend and early days of the convention. College Democrats offered classes that assisted members in mobilization tactics, and campus organizing while the Young Democrats held events and breakfasts as well. DNC Youth Council held press conferences and keynote speeches with the chairman of their party, which earned them bonus points in our survey. There were a dozen or more activities hosted by other youth-focused groups like Rock the Vote, HeadCount, DoSomething, and more.

College Republican activities were limited to a service project, and activities that many of the STORM (the CR social networking group) attended. The total was probably a handfull including one that was put on by Patron Tequila and one from the Young Guns–the Republican equivalent of the 30Something Caucus. This is logical, however. If there aren’t many young delegates, or youth attendants, why have events that focus on them? Rock the Vote held an event the Sunday before the convention was scheduled to begin.

Talking Heads

Unfortunately, the number of younger speakers at the conventions was pathetic. Democrats had Katherine Marcano and Amanda Kubik who spoke in the first few days. Marcano told a story of a young student in Cedar Rapids who cares for her disabled sister and urged the audience to expand health care and aid for higher education. Kubik spoke of the impact the country has on its youth that serves in Americorps, the Peace Corps, as well as the Armed Forces.

The RNCC had only one young leader who spoke about their achievements in a civic capacity as young Republicans. Ashley Gunn spoke of the importance of service and her work as the creator of Students Aiding Indigent Families. We gave them points because two College Republicans were on the schedule to speak. Jessica Colon and Charlie Smith were slated to address the crowd, but because of the Monday cancellation, they were bumped.

To assess youth issue engagement, this reporter read every speech from each speaker that appeared on television and counted references to young voters, youth, future generations, and policy themes that directly addressed issues such as college affordability or Kubik’s health care speech. Blanket references to “generations” and “children” were not things Rock the Trail considered in ranking. The total: we found 72 references to youth or youth issues in the DNCC speeches and ten in the RNCC speeches.

The most surprising differences came between the keynote speeches of Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. The Obama speech contained 10 references to future generations, young people, youth involved in his campaign, and things like college tuition. Only Obama’s wife Michelle mentioned youth issues as many times.

Sen. McCain, by contrast, had only a few references that could be taken as being about young people. The first the quote “I want schools to answer to parents and students.” Another was his reference to building alternative fuels and his hope that these “jobs…will be there when your children enter the workforce.”

Final Assessments

The general tone at both gatherings was also different. Its difficult to encapsulate, but the DNCC seemed like an event while the RNCC felt like a convention. Enthusiasm and activism levels were more substantial at the DNCC–we heard that many people didn’t get much sleep that week.

The Republicans were much more leisurely. One Republican told Rock the Trail it might have been because the hurricane threw them off their game and everything had to be reorganized at the last minute. Another told us that famous people and musicians aren’t traditionally Republicans, so the additional convention activates couldn’t be compared.

Overall, however, the two campaigns made it clear that youth engagement is not where it deserves to be. Young people are more engaged than ever, it’s time their parties harness their voices and energy to chart a political transformation in the future.

Sarah Burris is a reporter of Rock The Trail–a project of Rock the Vote and Wiretap magazine. She covers young local, state and federal political candidates and their legislative agendas, rural issues, Green Jobs and the environment.