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Democrats Rally Youth Vote for Nevada Cacuses

The race for the Democratic nomination today heads to Nevada, where the campaigns and a variety of unaffiliated organizations are working furiously to woo the youth vote, an increasingly engaged demographic. Already in this presidential campaign, younger voters have gone to the polls in record numbers, playing a big role in deciding both Iowa and New Hampshire.

This urgency in courting the youth vote, which makes up 22 percent of the eligible electorate in Nevada, was nowhere more apparent than in the Clinton campaign. It is now playing catch-up to the Obama campaign after spending much of 2007 focusing on older women.

Emily Hawkins, Clinton’s youth director, noted that the campaign was using a wide range of strategies to reach young Nevadans—including staging "mock caucus" events to teach young voters about the process and visiting an array of local schools. With most of Nevada’s colleges and universities not in session, the campaign has focused on high schools and vocational schools. Both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and former President Bill Clinton spent this week visiting high school government classes throughout the state and holding forums at vocational schools. Online, the campaign has engaged young Nevadans through "Ask Hillary," a feature on Hill Blazers, the Clinton campaign’s youth website, where supporters can post questions.

As is true for the Clinton campaign as a whole, much of its outreach is to young women. On Wednesday, the campaign announced that the TV stars America Ferrara of "Ugly Betty," and Amber Tamblyn, the title role in "Joan of Arcadia," were joining the campaign as co-chairs of Hill Blazers. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea has played a more prominent role on the stump. Both she and Ferrara joined Clinton on the campaign trail this week in a bid to draw younger women.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) who has received the majority of young voters’ support in the previous contests, has continued to rally students to his campaign this week. He has made stops at local high schools and an event was scheduled at the UNLV Student Union on Friday.

The Obama campaign has a detailed website explaining the caucus process, and the campaign regularly sends text messages to supporters about local Obama events and debate appearances. On Thursday, the campaign released a new web video that highlighted the support Obama received from young voters in Iowa, and challenged those in Nevada to do the same.

Participation by young voters in the Iowa caucuses this year tripled the turnout levels recorded in 2004. In New Hampshire, youth turnout doubled from the previous election cycle. In both states, young voters not only came to the polls in higher numbers, they also made up a larger share of the total electorate. According to CNN polling data, 22 percent of all voters in the Iowa caucuses were between 18 and 29 years of age—a greater percentage than 30–44 year olds, and equal to "traditionally reliable" senior citizens. In New Hampshire, 18–29 year olds beat out both demographics.

This new and—to many political analysts—surprising wave of youth participation was one reason for Obama’s 8-point victory in the Iowa caucus. In that first contest, Obama captured 57% of the youth vote, almost 5 times as much as Clinton.

In New Hampshire, however, Clinton changed her strategy and spent more time talking to young people. She ate into Obama’s base and cut his lead among 18–24 year olds down to 3 to 1. What’s more, she managed to edge out the Illinois senator among 25 – 29 year olds, demonstrating that young people will support candidates who target them—and making the youth vote an increasingly attractive constituency in future primary contests.

"Young people showed up strong for Democrats in both Iowa and New Hampshire," said Jane Fleming Kleeb, the executive director of the Young Voter PAC, "now all eyes are on Nevada. Nevada young people increased their voting in 2004 by 13 percent, And we know if candidates and youth groups target young people, they will turn out again.

All the campaigns seem to have absorbed this lesson and the battle for young Nevadans could be close. The state is different from Iowa and New Hampshire demographically, and any one of a number of factors could significantly influence youth turnout on Saturday. While Iowa and New Hampshire young voters are predominantly white, Nevada is a far more diverse, with a large and fairly young Latino population and an even larger percentage of young non-Latino people of color. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts that studies the civic habits of young people, estimates that 18 percent of 18 – 29 year olds in Nevada are Latino, and another 19 percent are non-Latino people of color.

Immigration has been a hot topic in Nevada, and Latino voters have been turning out in record numbers. A study by the New Democratic Network showed that turnout among Latinos increased by 33 percent nationally in 2006. Whether they will choose Obama, Clinton, or former Sen. John Edwards is still open to question.

Recent comments about race by supporters of Clinton may also influence how young people of color vote on Saturday. Though, again, the question is how much. There are no entrance polls available from previous caucuses in Nevada to measure turnout againstcan. Pollsters have been reluctant to survey the state due to the difficulties this creates in determining likely caucus goers. So there is little data about what Nevada voters are thinking, and even less for young voters—notoriously difficult to poll.

In addition to outreach from the presidential campaigns, various unaffiliated organizations are working in Nevada to maximize youth turnout. Most notably, the Young Democrats of Nevada, the Young Voter PAC and Democrats Work – a group that seeks to involve young people in the Democratic Party through community service – have teamed up to educate young voters about the caucus process. They are seeking to turn out as many young Nevadans as possible.

These groups recently launched a comprehensive campaign to educate and engage young Nevadans. It combines online outreach using targeted Facebook and Google ads and a new website, www.wannacaucus.com, with offline, peer-to-peer field work. This includes mock caucuses at high schools; non-traditional canvasses at bars, coffee shops and other places where young people spend time, and even small parties at the polls in the three largest student caucus precincts, where representatives of each group will be offering coffee and donuts.

"We have seen firsthand the excitement among Nevada’s youth that has been generated by this campaign season," said Jason Fromoltz, president of the Young Democrats of Nevada, "and know that the youth vote will play a crucial role in deciding the winner of the Nevada Democratic Presidential Caucus.

Fromoltz estimated that between mock caucuses and canvassing, the coordinated field effort could reach roughly 7,500 young Nevadans before the caucus. And they clearly see this as just a first step. These Democratic organizers emphasize that they are looking to do more than engage young people only for one day. They talk about helping young Nevadans "build a relationship with democracy"—and, by implication, the Democratic Party. As they say in their campaign materials, youth participation must be "more than a one-night stand."

If successful, their work might benefit not only the winner in tomorrow’s Democratic contest, but also the party’s future nominee and hundreds of down-ballot races in Nevada. "The lesson of Iowa and New Hampshire," said Thomas Bates, the executive director of Democrats Work, "is that if you connect with young people in meaningful ways, they get involved. Helping to turn out the youth vote on Saturday is the first step. With community service projects, Democrats will make sure that we don’t wait until November to engage young people again."

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