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Can Youth Vote Change Election Outcomes?

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With the first caucuses of the presidential election year imminent, it’s worth asking: Who will turn out among young voters in Iowa and subsequent states? And could their choices help swing the final result to the underdogs instead of the presumed front-runners?

Young Iowans represent an unusual voter bloc: They are more likely to be white and married than their similarly aged peers in other states, and they’re also significantly less likely to have a foreign-born parent — 3.5 percent compared to over 20 percent nationally, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. As The Guardian notes, there’s another reason why the polls could see an uptick in younger Iowa voters:

On the Democratic side, students will be the key demographic to watch. This will be the first Iowa caucus in over a decade that has taken place when colleges and universities are in session. If Bernie Sanders can successfully organize and turn out young people across the state, it could give him an edge in several key counties across the state.

Mother Jones concluded that Iowa’s small and youthful Latino demographic — about 5.6 percent of the population, with a median age of 22 — could be an important factor in the state’s caucuses. This is the first time a targeted voter campaign has focused on them, said the campaign’s lead organizer Joe Henry, a board member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). From Mother Jones:

“We have young people coming of age every year now, turning 18, getting registered to vote,” Henry said. “We are reaching a significant point in time where we have enough registered voters where we can participate in the caucuses in a significant way. Never before have we been able to do this.”

The youth vote — ages 18 to 29 — can indeed be a tipping point. CIRCLE’s research found young voters made a difference in 2014 for U.S. Senate races in several states. Take Louisiana, for example, from CIRCLE’s report:

Young voters may have had the biggest impact in Louisiana, where they propelled Democrat Mary Landrieu (42%) to a runoff against Republican Bill Cassidy (41%). Young people cast 11% of the votes in that election and supported Landrieu to the tune of 50%, which was by far her best performance among any age group.

While Landrieu lost that run-off, the younger voters were still a crucial voice in the process, CIRCLE concluded.

These figures are a good reminder that politics is, indeed, local. A candidate might be deemed the front-runner in a national poll but that’s not always reflective of how they’ll fare with local voters. Effective grassroots efforts to reach the youth vote could work in favor of an otherwise trailing candidate and end up turning the tide, says Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s youth coordinator and researcher. At the same time, it will take more than charisma to win them over, she says.

“When we look at how young people vote, they are much more likely to say the issues matter more to them than the individual candidate’s characteristics,” Kiesa told me.

So what do younger voters care about? It depends who — and how — you ask. In a recent USA Today/Rock the Vote poll, the leading topic of concern to individuals ages 18 to 34 was the economy. In second place: college affordability and student debt, according to the poll results.

To be sure, those issues are familiar to many young adults. And plenty has been written about the higher-education platforms of this season’s leading candidates — policies that could cause a sea change in how families pay for postsecondary degrees. Candidates have also been quick to pile on education issues that are unpopular with their base, sometimes with applause-line flourishes that deviate from the facts.

Emma Brown of The Washington Post took a close look at Donald Trump’s new anti-Common Core video, and correctly points out that his pledge to “end” the new standards would be tough to uphold as the federal government didn’t put the Common Core in place and it’s up to the individual states to decide whether or not to continue using them.

Over at Education Week, Politics K-12 blogger Alyson Klein pointed out that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s claim that the Common Core had been “eliminated” in the state was only partially true. As the news site reported, a state review committee recommended that about 85 percent of the common standards remain in place. WGBH in Boston looked at what the presidential hopefuls are pledging to bring down college costs for students, an issue that’s been particularly big for the Democratic contenders.

Given the diversity of the individuals who fall under the broader “youth vote” umbrella, “it’s important that we be more nuanced in our conversations about young voters and elections,” says CIRCLE’s Kiesa, and to pay attention to more than fluctuations in their turnout numbers.

“Campaigns and parties can show young voters that they’re serious about interacting with them authentically by providing meaningful opportunities to have a role and an impact,” Kiesa says. “A good first step is understanding the range of issues that a diverse generation cares about and what systemic issues lead to those concerns.”

Writing about education issues and the elections? Rick Hess, a policy analyst for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, put together a handy roundup of public opinion numbers on education issues, comparing this year’s interest levels with prior election cycles. According to Hess, it’s not unusual that education is getting short shrift because issues like the economy and national security are bigger priorities right now. He also argues that “much of education’s prominence in previous elections is actually candidate driven rather than in response to public outcry.”

A quick reminder that polls are just one snapshot of how a particular group of individuals respond – and their answers depend heavily on the wording of the questions that are asked. For more on how to wisely use polling data in education stories, take a look at our Reporter Guide. We also have a brand-new Topics Page on the 2016 election complete with the latest news, reports, key coverage, and even questions to ask as you develop your own stories. We recently held a webinar to discuss the current state of civics education , which you’ll find useful for understanding the role public schools play in shaping future voters. And you can watch our Journalist Roundtable on the 2016 White House Race — held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and moderated by Caroline Hendrie, EWA’s executive director.

EWA’s Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this post.