A Progressive Group Is Ready To Spend $45 Million Turning Out Young Voters

Youth turnout spiked in the midterms, but party strategists are worried about 2020 enthusiasm.
Darby Dunlop, left and Zoe Stein of NextGen America write a message that both Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Martha Mc
Darby Dunlop, left and Zoe Stein of NextGen America write a message that both Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Martha McSally and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey are endorsed by Donald Trump next to a line of people waiting to vote at the ASU Palo Verde West polling station during the U.S. midterm elections in Tempe, Arizona, Nov, 6, 2018.

A progressive nonprofit is preparing to spend a record $45 million to register and turn out voters under 35 ahead of the 2020 elections, hoping to replicate a spike in youth turnout that helped Democrats make massive gains in the midterm elections.

NextGen America, which is primarily funded by Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is aiming to register more than 270,000 voters and turn out another 330,000 already-registered voters across 11 states crucial to winning the presidency and lifting Democrats to control of the Senate: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. 

The massive money commitment comes as some top Democratic strategists are publicly declaring their worries about youth turnout in 2020. While young voters turned out in 2018 at nearly double the rate they did during the 2014 midterms, Democratic polling has shown young voters are not matching the enthusiasm levels of older voters, sparking worries at the party’s highest levels.

“We’re doing it bigger and better than ever before,” Ben Wessel, the group’s executive director, told HuffPost in a phone interview. “It’s a cliche to say, ‘This is the most important election ever,’ but for the young people we’re working with, it’s the truth.”

The group spent over $38 million during the 2018 elections, and Wessel said the initial $45 million sum “will almost certainly go up.” The group may also expand its efforts into Georgia and Texas, two states rich with potential young, Democratic-leaning voters.

“We’re watching it,” Wessel said of a potential expansion into the states, both of which are rapidly diversifying and have seen an even more rapid shift in the suburbs toward Democrats. “It’s a pretty tempting target, we’re just not there yet.”

Democrats are likely to eagerly welcome the spending. At a briefing for reporters this week, Priorities USA Chair Guy Cecil ― the leader of the party’s largest super PAC ― said relatively low enthusiasm among young voters was one of his biggest worries about 2020.

“We consistently see in our polls on who’s motivated to turn out, that African Americans and young voters trail other voters in their interest in the elections,” Cecil said. “That’s obviously a really critical part of the work that we have to do.”

Census data shows 36% of citizens ages 18 to 30 voted in the 2018 midterms, up from just 20% in 2014. Nearly half of adults ages 30 to 44 voted, compared to 36% in 2014. Meanwhile, turnout among senior citizens only rose slightly, from 59% to 66%.

Democrats won two-thirds of voters ages 18 to 30 during the midterms, according to exit polling, and nearly three-fifths of those from age 30 to 44.

NextGen hopes to replicate this performance and win back Democratic control of both the presidency and the Senate. The group will also to convince young people not to back a third-party candidate instead of the Democratic nominee, with Wessel noting 10% of young people backed either Green Party nominee Jill Stein or Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson in the 2016 election.

“It comes down to math. Young people are supporting Democrats two-to-one. That’s an opportunity to reshape domestic politics,” Wessel said. “We’re worried about third-party defection. We’re worried about down-ballot dropoff.”

NextGen’s spending comes as the picture of how Democratic outside groups plan to counter President Donald Trump’s enormous campaign war chest ― his campaign and the Republican National Committee raised more than $125 million in the last fundraising quarter. Earlier this month, the Democratic group American Bridge launched the first chunk of $50 million worth of advertising aimed at limiting the president’s advantage of working-class white voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a potential 2020 Democratic candidate, has promised to spend $100 million on digital ads in the coming months. And the aforementioned Priorities USA, which also plans to spend more than $100 million in the coming months, has spent more than the Trump campaign on digital persuasion ads in key states in recent months.

Virtually all of NextGen’s spending during the 2020 cycle will go toward building a 600-person field operation and to digital ads. The group has become known for stunts on college campuses ― it hosted petting zoos and toilet paper giveaways in the fall of 2018 ― designed to draw in students’ attention before registering them to vote. Steyer, who no longer plays a direct role in running the group, had told his team to be “shameless” in their methods.

“No one on our team is above being at a bar at 12:30 in the morning with some voter registration cards and seeing what we can get,” Wessel said.

Part of the group’s 2020 strategy will be to enlist more than 3,000 “micro-influencers” ― people or organizations with between 10,000 and 20,000 followers on Instagram ― to deliver its message. The group has successfully recruited gay bars, basketball players and cat-themed accounts to encourage followers to register and turn out to vote.

“Trust is the hardest thing to build in politics, especially for young people. They don’t trust their teachers, they don’t trust their parents, they don’t trust the news. They trust their friends,” Wessel said. “And the people you follow online every day are your friends.”

Overall, the campaign plans to target 4.7 million voters who “are likely to be progressive but are less than likely to cast a ballot in 2020 without a concerted campaign focusing on their issues and needs.” Nearly half of the voter universe consists of people of color, and a majority have at least some college experience. Wessel noted millennials and Generation Z are increasingly diverse.

“It’s a very different conversation you have with a 33-year-old mother of two in suburban Phoenix than you do with a freshman student at the University of Northern Iowa,” he said.