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Note To Democrats: Don't Take Youth Vote For Granted

Ben Adler is an Urban Leaders Fellow at Next American City. He covered the 2008 election and Congress with a focus on the youth vote as a staff writer for Politico and previously edited, a daily online youth magazine, at the Center for American Progress. 

The scene at last Tuesday night's Youth Ball, with hoards of Obama-swooning twentysomethings rocking out to Kanye West and Kid Rock, seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom of the campaign season: that Barack Obama's stunning margins among young voters (66 percent of whom voted for him) has laid the foundation for a long-lasting Democratic majority. As Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber, authors of the Millennial-celebrating tome Generations We, wrote last week in the Huffington Post, "The current shift of young Americans toward the progressive camp is profoundly important, likely presaging three decades or more of potential political dominance for progressive views and policies."

True, these voters present a major opportunity for the Democratic Party. Opinion polls show that they are more left leaning on issues, and the demographic diversity of the Millennial Generation favors Democrats. But buried in Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher's recent memo to incoming DNC chair Tim Kaine (hat tip to Mike Connery of Future Majority) is a crucial insight: Twenty percent of voters under 35 did not vote for a House candidate in November. As Belcher concluded in his memo, "These younger ... surge voters are, by and large, Obama‘s right now, not necessarily the Democratic Party's."

That leaves a lot of people who may not stay with the Democrats if the party doesn't lock them in. Building on Obama's success in courting these voters, the DNC now needs a better youth strategy of its own. While they have benefited from initial outreach efforts, a bigger investment is needed.

Under Howard Dean, the DNC created a Youth Council to advocate for investment in young voters and attention to their concerns. But youth vote activists say that Dean's commitment has been a lot heavier on rhetoric than substance. The College Democrats are still in debt and can only afford one staffer, as compared to the historically better funded and organized College Republicans, who had eight full-time administrative staff and 50 field staff during the election. "It's rhetoric," says Jane Fleming Kleeb, who co-chairs the DNC youth council. "It is still a struggle for any youth organization to get resources out of the established Democratic Party."

The party leadership is showing promising signs that it grasps the importance of wooing this demographic. Nancy Pelosi has created a "Thirty-something Working Group" comprised of young congressmen, and has hired a full-time staffer to focus on young voters. Republicans admit these efforts are a major reason they got trounced among young voters this year. "It's just a matter of organizing and reaching out to those voters," says Jessica Colon, Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. "That's what we've seen the Democrats do over the last few election cycles."

Republican youth activists are hoping that their next chairman, in particular Ken Blackwell, will take note of Obama's youth tactics. "I think there were a lot of lessons learned that will play out in future elections," says Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republicans. "I hope the next chairman of the RNC will look at it that way." Hopefully so will the next chairman of the DNC.

--Ben Adler