Gubernatorial candidates might face obstacles winning over youth voters

Feb 17, 2014

I asked my friends who are registered Illinois voters if they had any plans to vote in the November gubernatorial election. I was met with blank stares.

Granted, my friends are not the most politically active group of people. Last year, one of them wrote in the name of an experimental musician on his presidential ballot.

I know a lot about the participating candidates because I work for Reboot and I’m in a politically-minded environment. But what does this gubernatorial race look like to someone who doesn’t work for a politically-based organization? To me, there isn’t one candidate in particular who seems to really stick out. It took me forever to figure out which GOP candidate was which — they’re all very, very similar in terms of demographic: Kirk Dillard. White. 58 years old. Bill Brady. White. 52 years old. Bruce Rauner. White. 56 years old. Dan Rutherford. White. 58 years old. And then you have the Democratic incumbent, Governor Pat Quinn, who’s also white and clocks in at 65 years old.

So I started wondering — how interested are young people in the gubernatorial election? How do people go about getting youth interested in a mid-term election with such a homogeneous group of politicians? And what are the chances that young people will participate in the March 18 primary?

Last year, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill that allows 17-year-olds to vote in the March primary if they will be 18 by the November election, making it possible for many high school seniors (and some juniors) to participate in the primary.

Brian Brady, the executive director for the Chicago-based organization Mikva Challenge, which encourages young people to participate in the democratic process through civic engagement, said it’s “a little too early to tell” whether young people will take advantage of the new law.

The “Suffrage at 17” law, as it’s been dubbed, didn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2014, leaving only a few months for 17-year-olds to register to vote. But a number of organizations, including Mikva Challenge and the Chicago Board of Elections, are pushing to get young people in the Chicago area and beyond registered before March 18.

“We’re hoping to get at least 50 percent or more [of high school students] voting in this election,” Brady said, “despite it just being a primary election.”

Andrew Conneen, a high school teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., was one of the primary forces behind the Suffrage at 17 bill.

It will take some time to get the word out to young people, he said, but many students that he’s spoken to are eager to participate in their first election.

“Now that pretty much any high school senior in the state of Illinois who’s a U.S. Citizen is going to be eligible to vote in this March primary, we’re definitely hearing of more excitement,” Conneen said.

Conneen said he’s seen leadership on both sides of the aisle realize that they need to do a better job of reaching out to young voters.

“Every organization on this planet tries to market to young consumers,” he said. “Why shouldn’t political parties do that?”

Brady said it remains to be seen which gubernatorial candidate will resonate the most with young voters, but that the candidates seem “aware that young people could determine the race.”

The candidates’ positions on issues including education, medical marijuana, taxes and gun control could have a real effect on youth when they decide how they want to cast their vote. How savvy they are with social media might also play a role.

I went to see three of the four GOP candidates speak to public school students from Chicago last week. Some of the candidates’ responses made them seem so out of touch with today’s young people that I cringed.

One student, for example, asked the candidates to choose a character from their favorite television show that best represented their leadership style.

Their responses? Let’s see:

Bill Brady: “I’d have to go back into the dark ages. I’d pick ‘Bonanza.’ I pick Lorne Green, Mr. Cartwright.”

Dan Rutherford: “If I looked back on a television show that influenced me as a young person, it probably had to be something like ‘Sea Hunt’ or ‘Tarzan.’”

Kirk Dillard said something about the History Channel and Winston Churchill.

I had to Google “Sea Hunt” (which I’d never even heard of) and “Bonzanza characters” in order to accurately transcribe the candidates’ responses.

Probably not the most satisfactory answers that the candidates could have given to a group of high school students.

Their responses to other questions were more effective. But 55 percent of Millenials identify as Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. And three of the students at the forum told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown that, although they were impressed with Dan Rutherford, they still planned to participate in the Democratic primary. So the GOP will have to make a real effort to connect with young voters.

Over the next few months, I’ll be paying attention to youth activity in the election process and monitoring what the different campaigns are doing in an effort to reach out to young people. There will be a better sense of how many people will take advantage of the Suffrage at 17 law after it’s been in effect for more than a handful of weeks.

Maybe in that time, the candidates can come up with less out-of-date answers about their favorite television shows.

Related: Buzzmeter: Who's leading in Facebook likes for 2014?
Feb 16, 2014

Earlier this week, three of the four GOP candidates for governor fielded questions from high school students at a forum hosted by WTTW. Naturally, with tech-savvy students asking the questions,…

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