POLITICO: Vincent Harris Quoted on Targeting Youth Votes

January 11, 2015
By Darren Samuelsohn

Coming soon to a battleground state near you: White House campaigns combining census reports with Instagram and Twitter posts to target teenagers who aren’t yet 18 but will be by Election Day 2016.

It’s an aggressive strategy with an obvious reward. More than eight million people will become legal adults eligible to vote for the first time by the next general election. Campaigns are eager to find ways to get through to these 16- and 17-year-olds who are still minors and, in most cases, more likely to be concerned with making it to class on time than who should be elected president.
“It’s got to be the right candidate with the right message to excite and motivate that age demographic, with so many distractions in their life, to register, and then turn out,” said Vincent Harris, digital director for Rand Paul’s political operation.

Harris Media's CEO Vincent Harris speaks about digital media strategy at the University of Texas at Austin, Harris Media, Vincent Harris UT, Vincent Harris government, Vincent Harris political strategist, Vincent R Harris, Vince Harris, Vincent Harris digital, Vincent Harris politics, Vincent Harris online media, Vincent Harris CEO Harris Media
Harris Media CEO Vincent Harris speaking at the University of Texas Post-Election Debrief

Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans are desperate for any edge at the polls, and they say they’ll be employing 21st-century data mining techniques in search of supporters from this ripe demographic that has little or no track record in politics. That means scouring local high school directories from Iowa to Florida, matching up data from public voter rolls with parents’ voting histories, and picking through whatever scant bits of consumer information are also available to help paint a sharper picture of the electorate.

Privacy activists and policymakers express deep qualms about letting political campaigns have free rein to target future voters before they’ve become legal adults. They say teenagers lack the proper context and experience to make sense of so many brass-knuckle attack ads on complicated issues ranging from the federal deficit to terrorism. Civic-minded efforts to encourage youth turnout can come close to crossing the line too, including a viral Rock the Vote video on which rapper Lil Jon said his reason for casting a ballot in 2014 was to legalize marijuana, and a Koch Brothers-affiliated Generation Opportunity commercial that used a particularly scary Uncle Sam mask to urge young women to opt out of Obamacare. Making data on young voters publicly available also opens them up not just to messages from Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, but from anyone else who wants to contact kids online.

“You want your 16-year-old daughter’s name and address on the web in this world?” said Vicki Berger, a retiring Oregon state representative who has tried to restrict the public release of teenagers’ personal data when they pre-register to vote in her state before they turn 18. She warns that the information could end up in the hands of “pedophiles and people preying on young girls.”

Beyond the privacy issues associated with targeting minors, campaigns face other serious questions about whether it’s even worth the time and money to make a play for the youngest of young voters. Only half of the 18-29 set actually turned out for the 2012 election. Logistically, just keeping tabs on these teenagers is a headache considering many will be leaving their parents’ homes and heading off to college in a different state or congressional district right around the same time the two parties are holding their national political conventions.

But the payoff is also almost too big to ignore. President Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008 and 2012 how the youth vote can be a key ingredient in building a winning coalition. His volunteers set up shop across the street from high school graduation ceremonies to register new voters and used student volunteers to hound classmates. If Mitt Romney had just split the youth vote with Obama, he would be president right now, according to a Tufts University analysis.

The Republican National Committee senses an opportunity. The next generation of first-time voters were still in grade school when Obama won his first term and have approached legal voting age during a time of deep economic uncertainty. Recognizing the rich vein of potential support, GOP data teams are creating comprehensive files on teenagers as part of a large scale effort to deduce the political DNA of some 200 million Americans.

“This and voter registration are priorities and what we’re already looking to get on voters,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. “Frankly, it’s a huge opportunity for us with the youth turning away from Obama and the Democrats the way we’ve seen lately.”

Paul strategists see young voters as viable targets thanks in part to the libertarian stances the Kentucky Republican has taken on National Security Agency surveillance and drug policy. It won’t be the first group he goes after if he runs for president — that would be people with proven track records voting in primaries. But it is an avenue the senator is ready to explore.

“Campaigns will certainly reach out to those voters, but they are oft-discussed in the media and rarely show up to vote,” Harris said. “Perhaps online offers an ability to group them into some younger voter targeting and to run some specific messages to register and get out to vote, but it would take a unique candidate such as Rand Paul to really get that age demographic excited.”

The goal is to figure out which young voters “would have to be motivated enough in Iowa to say spend time at a caucus location for a candidate versus out with a friend at a bar or on a Tinder date,” Harris added.

While Hillary Clinton will be challenged to generate the same level of excitement among the younger crowd as Obama, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner’s backers say they will try to find new ways to win over the 16- and 17-year-old set. Ready for Hillary, the super PAC that plans to hand over to a future Clinton campaign an email list with about 3 million addresses, “is engaging anyone between the age of 16 and whenever you stop considering yourself a young professional,” said a Democratic source close to the group.

Read the full story here: http://politi.co/17AgC9Q