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David Hogg Wants to Knock NRA-Backed Candidates Out of Office. His Biggest Obstacle? The Lackluster Voting Habits of His Young Peers

By Mark Keierleber | May 10, 2018

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg speaks onstage at March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Morigi/Getty Images for March For Our Lives)

David Hogg knows what he’s up against. Since the student from Parkland, Florida, became a prominent voice in the burgeoning debate over guns in America, 18-year-old Hogg has set his gaze on just one opponent: the National Rifle Association.

In a crusade to upend congressional leaders who receive campaign contributions from the gun lobby, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior hopes to find support in America’s youngest voters — people, he said, who’ve grown up in the era of on-campus police and school-shooter drills. Hogg and his allies have gone head-to-head with prominent gun-rights pundits. They’ve sparred with lawmakers over campaign contributions from the gun lobby, and they’ve asked young people to pledge they won’t vote for candidates who take NRA cash.

And they’re encouraging young people to go the polls come November.

“The main way that we’re going to get people out to vote is pointing out the issues that affect the youth every day,” Hogg told The 74. “For example, crippling student debt, a growing school-to-prison pipeline, and gun violence.”

But motivating young Americans to show up to the polls on Election Day — rather than the millions of dollars the NRA gifts to gun-friendly candidates — could be Hogg’s biggest hurdle. For generations, the turnout rate among America’s youngest voters has been painstakingly low.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama secured the youth vote by a landslide, a strategy that ultimately helped him win the White House.

As with the electorate as a whole, however, youth voter turnout during elections without presidential candidates on the ticket is especially dismal. During the most recent primary elections, in 2014, youth voter turnout rates reached a historic low. Just 20 percent of voters 18 to 29 years old voted — and the rate was even worse among voters 18 to 20, among whom 15 percent cast ballots.

Will this November be any different?

Public opinion polls and interviews with political scientists studying youth voters indicate that the U.S. could experience a modest uptick in voter turnout among young people during the elections this fall. And though the gun-control debate could drive some young people to vote, experts on youth voter turnout rates say that it’s one of just many issues at play. Other social issues, like the #MeToo movement around workplace sexual harassment and opposition to the president, could be sizable motivators.

“2014 was actually the lowest midterm election turnout for young people ever,” said Peter Levine, who studies youth civic engagement and is the associate dean for research at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. “So we have nowhere to go but up.”

Why don’t young people vote?

Hogg understands the youth-voter conundrum. In fact, he argues the historical tendency of young people to shy away from the polls makes it easy for politicians to tune them out.

“When we don’t make our voice heard, like we haven’t for years and years and decades, we continue to see these things where politicians continue to use and abuse the inaction of youth in America so they can continue to promote the interests of special interests,” Hogg said.

Hogg may be on to something. Less than half of millennials said they believe they have a legitimate voice in the political process, according to a 2016 poll by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. And because young people often don’t make their voices heard on Election Day, Levine said, they’re often left out in campaign outreach efforts.

“Political campaigns treat young people as unlikely voters, and so they actually leave them off their lists to contact,” Levine said. “There’s even a pattern of campaigns going through the list of registered voters and striking off those who are under 30 as not worth knocking on their door.”

In turn, Levine said, millions of young voters remain “under-mobilized,” meaning they’re registered to vote but they don’t actually cast a ballot. Even though campaigns to encourage voter registration make signing up a low-stakes proposition, Levine said, efforts that encourage people to follow through and vote are lacking. In 2014, 12.4 million people 18 to 29 were registered to vote but didn’t show up on Election Day.

David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, said mobility among young people could also dampen turnout, since they haven’t yet established roots in their communities. For the same reason, he said, young people are harder for campaigns to find.

One of the biggest predictors of whether someone will vote, Campbell said, is whether they’ve voted before. The quality of a student’s civics education can influence the likelihood that they’ll vote, and people who cast a ballot early in life are more likely to continue voting in the future.

“The big hurdle is getting people to the polls for the first time,” Campbell said, “and of course that’s more likely to be a challenge for young people who haven’t had as many opportunities to vote.”

Get out the vote

Even as Hogg plans to take a gap year from college to focus on working with local nonprofits to build support across the country, he’s up against an organization that spent more than $54 million in 2016. A majority of that spending went to President Donald Trump’s campaign.

And although gun ownership is a way of life for many Americans, gun control tends to be less deeply held as a value, with popularity spiking immediately after mass shootings, like those in Parkland, Newtown, or Las Vegas. Because gun-control proponents typically don’t see the cause as a staple of their identity, the issue hasn’t historically mobilized voters, Campbell said. But that could be changing, he said, in part because of post-Parkland activism.

“I don’t know if gun control will ever be an expression of identity, per se, but I do think we are at a moment where a window has opened,” he said.

In a recent Harvard Institute of Politics youth poll, 77 percent of likely midterm voters under 30 said gun control will be an important issue in determining their vote in November. That could spell bad news for gun-rights proponents. More than two-thirds of youth respondents said they favor stricter firearm laws, a 15 percent surge from Harvard polling in 2013, months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

In the same poll, 47 percent of young adults said they support changing the Second Amendment and 47 percent said they believe post-Parkland student protests will have a lasting effect on firearm policies in the U.S.

The poll also found a marked increase in the number of young Americans who say they will “definitely be voting” in the upcoming elections: 37 percent of Americans under 30 said they will “definitely be voting,” compared with 23 percent who said the same in 2014 and 31 percent in 2010. Young people who identify as Democrats drive that surge in optimism. About half of young Democrats said they will “definitely” vote in November, compared with 36 percent of young Republicans.

The Harvard poll and others, Levine said, indicate that the U.S. will likely experience a “modest” increase in youth voter turnout come November. To have a statistically significant effect on youth voter turnout, Levine said, the increase would have to be hundreds of thousands of people. Though he is skeptical that student gun-control activists on their own will make a sizable difference in youth turnout, he does anticipate an uptick in young voters — not in favor of a particular candidate, but in opposition to Trump.

In his own polling pre-Parkland, Campbell found that heightened political engagement is especially concentrated among young, Democratic women — an observation that’s likely in response to the #MeToo movement that’s mobilized around sexual harassment in the workplace. The tragedy in Florida, he said, could further mobilize young people.

The NRA and gun-rights proponents have also mobilized around the Parkland shooting and the upcoming election. During the NRA’s national convention in Dallas last week, the group held sessions on “a shared commitment to more secure schools,” to discuss perceived vulnerabilities in school security. The conference also held a discussion on “the false claims that will be made against guns during the election,” with a focus on background checks, mass shootings, and gun-free zones.

An NRA spokeswoman didn’t make an official available for an interview but provided contact information for Will Riley, an 18-year-old student from Carlsbad, New Mexico, who organized a national student walkout last week to highlight student support for the Second Amendment.

Although Riley disagrees with youth activists backing gun control, he and Hogg share similar perspectives on the importance of youth voting and civic engagement. The national walkout in support of gun rights, he said, also provided an opportunity to encourage young voters.

“Young people often do not vote as much as older people, and I think that’s a problem because one day we are going to have to govern this country, and I think we need to make sure that it is the country that the founders intended it to be,” He said. “We need to make sure that we are safeguarding our liberties as soon as we can.”

In developing a strategy ahead of the elections, Hogg said he’s interested in countering candidates who take NRA money, rather than a political party, and has gone after NRA-backed Democrats. Although he aims to increase youth voter turnout, he declined to offer a goal.

But a modest gain in youth turnout, Levine said, could ultimately affect election outcomes.

“If you’re interested in ‘Will young organizers make a difference in this election,’ I think the answer is yes,” Levine said. “But if you’re interested in ‘Do young people really participate in our democracy,’ then I think the answer is basically no.”

He adds: “And that’s a bad thing.”

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