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Young voters a priority for local candidates

by Jen Thomas
Oct 22, 2008

With young voters expected to turn out in record numbers on Election Day, local Congressional candidates are actively trying to court the 18- to 30-year-old demographic.

Candidates in districts that have significant college-aged or young professional populations in particular have launched aggressive campaigns in an attempt to reach out to the younger generation.

“Young people are really, really excited this election,” said Alex Armour, political director for U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston). “The youth vote is there. The essence of the campaign is the younger people, the under-30 voters.”

Incumbent Schakowsky’s 9th district includes Northwestern University and Loyola University. Armour said student political organizations at the colleges are a vital part of spreading the word about local elections to other students, a group historically absent at the polls.

“We have people outside polling places near colleges, encouraging people to vote all the way down the ticket,” Armour said.

Julie Neuhaus, the campaign manager for Republican Tom Hanson’s bid for U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s (D-Chicago) Congressional seat in the 5th district, credits the popularity of presidential hopeful Barack Obama with mobilizing the younger generation around what she called a common cause.

“It’s a reinvention of the ’60s, I think,” Neuhaus said. “It’s cohesive to have Obama running and it’s bringing ethnicities and religions together for the first time in a long time.”

Neuhaus said the enthusiasm will carry over to other races, including those for Congress.

“People are being much more thoughtful. They have done their research. They may skip the local portion of the ballot but it’s a critical time in American history and everyone is taking this seriously,” Neuhaus said.

Students from Columbia College, DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago have volunteered for the Hanson campaign, Neuhaus said, and most of the liberal Republican's supporters are under 40.

“We’re trying harder than anyone else to reach the young voters and address what they care about,” Neuhaus said.

With economic woes atop their list of concerns, young voters are looking to this election as an opportunity to instate a changing of the guard.

“College kids are really excited this election because they’re scared about getting out of school and finding a job,” said Stacy Raker, the president of the DePaul University College Democrats and a field organizer with Illinois Victory 2008. She is working on the Dan Seals and Mark Kirk matchup in the northern suburbs. “They’re excited to be voting for the first time, they’re excited about Barack Obama. It’s smart to bank on that excitement.”

Blogging and social networking pages are staples for the candidate who is looking to corner the youth market, but traditional campaigning strategies still prove to be most effective for all audiences.

“I wouldn’t say we’re the 100 percent most tech-savvy campaign but we try our best,” Armour said. “You never abandon the old fundamentals.”

For some candidates, this year’s enthusiasm among younger voters isn’t enough to warrant spending precious campaign dollars on trying to attract them.

“Historical data shows us that young people don’t vote,” said Tonia Members, the wife and campaign manager of Republican Antoine Members, a Cook County sheriff’s deputy seeking a Congressional spot in the 1st district, which covers the South Side and southwest suburbs.

“Even though Obama has sparked more interest, we still don’t know if they’ll turn out for everyone. We don’t know if people are going to go down the list and vote for others. Because we’re not millionaires, we can’t spend a whole lot of money to do the fancy footwork others can,” Tonia Members said.

Morris Shanfield, the 76-year-old Green Party candidate in Schakowsky’s district, said he’s easily the oldest person in the room when he attends party events but he knows nothing about attracting the youth vote.

“I’m attempting to temper the fervor of the Obama campaign,” Shanfield said, noting he doesn’t make appearances and has no formal campaign.

It remains to be seen whether the youth vote will have an impact on the outcome of the presidential race but the key to keeping millennials excited about voting is to keep them engaged, Raker said.

“It’s really important for candidates to present their positions to let voters know who they are,” she said. “If voters feel like their vote matters, they’ll continue to vote.”