Do Millennials Participate in Elections in Off-Years?

What entices volunteers to come out in large numbers during election years? Is it because they feel passionate? Is it just another extracurricular activity, or are people doing it to satisfy credit for a class?   Most people volunteer during these years because they are enthused about and passionate for the candidates. Take, for example, the enthusiasm of the youth in the 2008 presidential campaign. 2010, an off-election year, was a harder to persuade young people to volunteer because many senatorial and local candidates were not as enthusiastic and did not inspire the youth as much.  

Politicians have realized this apathy in volunteering during off-years and have reached out to millennials in diverse ways, which caused campaigns to run differently — in a way that will move young people to volunteer more often in with more passion.  The select hub of millennials that volunteer in off-years do so because they previously enjoyed their experiences in volunteering so much that it kept them wanting more when elections were over. The presidential elections made millennials feel empowered to push the president’s message or rally with others to fight back against his agendas. Some volunteers pay attention to the local races during presidential campaigns, while others only focus on the president’s campaign. The folks that are in touch with the local races are the ones that come back during off-years because they felt the importance of local candidates’ victories in terms of gaining national votes down the line.

Prior to 2007, civic engagement was on the decline.  Interest in local candidates and trust in the government and major institutions was lacking. What is the reason for this apathy? Scholars note that education or lack thereof is a valid reason. A person’s educational level effects their level of political knowledge “as the quantity and character of their political participation,” and if millennials are not taught in school the effects of being involved in non-election years, they will continue to only volunteer in presidential years, or not volunteer at all, according to scholar William A. Galston. Voter turnout is low in off-years for a number of reasons: a.) voters might not recognize the importance of voting when it is not a presidential election b.) voters weren’t sought out by a young volunteer working on a campaign c.)  interests may have changed. 

A swarm of people from a variety of ages continued to feel passionate about President Obama’s message even after the 2008 election. Obama supporters from around the country turned his campaign message, Obama for America, into a widespread organization, Organizing for America, which was founded by the Democratic National Committee. It is essentially the re-election committee that pushed President Obama’s agenda from 2008 when he was first elected.  According to authors Aysu Kes-Erkul and R. Erdem Erkul, these organizers focused on the off-years by working to elect candidates that promote his agenda. Organizing for America also took action in major volunteer action events, such as food banks for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Get Out the Vote (GOTV) methods in off-years is crucial. Think of the 1998 midterm elections in New Haven, Massachusetts, when volunteers went face-to-face canvassing and this effort raised turnout rates from “approximately 44% in the control group to 53% among those canvassed.” This study was done by Green, Gerber, and Nickerson. A prime example of a successful volunteer effort in an off-year is the 2010 election. The Democratic National Committee spokesperson Brad Woodhouse argued that it was mostly a volunteer effort instead of an election result. The DNC made 86 million voter contacts and had staff and volunteers in 435 congressional districts. They spent more money in this midterm election with field efforts and paid staff and had coordinated campaigns in all of the key states.  

The Republican Party also came out in large numbers of volunteers due to the popularity and reformation of the Tea Party movement. The Republicans were defeated in 2008 when The Democratic Party Swooped the nation with a new and progressive Democratic president and the sea of Democratic-elected candidates from all over the country. Republicans grew angry and hostile towards President Obama and his liberal agenda, particularly his economic agenda. The Republicans saw this opportunity as a time to fight back.

 In February of 2010, Tea Party groups all over the country formed and began holding protests, and national rallies grew larger and spoke at April Tax Day protests (Williamson et al., 2011). Prior to the Tea Party movement, conservatives came out in church groups and conservative media sources and right wing media groups, which where often led by Fox News. The Tea Party movement was so successful in 2010 that its candidates even pushed out moderate Republicans

2006, though it was not a presidential election, drew in many millennial volunteers. The Democrats used this election as a referendum on President Bush’s agenda, especially the War on Iraq. The Democrats picked up 30 seats in the House of Representatives and won control of both chambers “for the first time in twelve years.”  They also gained six Senate seats from Republican incumbents. Rahm Emanuel, the former chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and his counterpart, Senator Charles Schumer led the party in new directions and organized a powerful volunteer movement of Democrats that were upset about President Bush’s agenda. The referendum was successful, as more than a third of the electorate said their vote for Congress was not just a vote against congressional members, but it was a vote against Bush, which was larger than his predecessors—even Bill Clinton in 1994.  Similarly, volunteers came out in large groups. They were upset with President Bush’s agenda. They were tired of the war. They volunteered because it was the social thing to do . Not only did they volunteer long hours each day,but they motivated their friends to volunteer for Democratic campaigns as well. 

So, could the Obama campaign be  more active? The answer is yes. Most recently, the campaign formed Organizing for Action, which is similar to Organizing for America, but it is focused on pushing President Obama’s agenda from the 2012 election, when he was last elected. Organizing for Action mobilizes people in off-years to reduce gun violence, work on gay marriage-related issues, immigration reform, the economy, women’s issues, and more. This organization is an issue-based advocacy group, much like Organizing for America. It is a grassroots movement that takes all of these issues to the local, state, and national level. Organizing for Action is also different from Organizing for America because it is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization and solely works for issue advocacy work. Many states have established local chapters with trainings on weekends where people from teenagers and young adults to senior citizens work on the hot issues facing the nation today. 

Despite the assumptions that there is a lacking volunteer effort in off-election years, the millennials have come out in large numbers since 2006, even before the 2008 presidential election. Millennials tend to push together efforts when they are upset about current presidential candidates, and they get together to organize early, such as the Tea Party movement. In the case of millennials in off-years, it is more about the volunteer efforts than the election results. Scholars see this trend as continuing, as groups all around the country are already working on volunteer efforts for the 2016 election.

Below is a section of research that focuses on what motivates the millennial generation to volunteer for campaigns in off-years and each article discusses a particular election where there was a high amount of millennial participation in off-years, and also discusses reasons that motivate the millennial generation to keep volunteering during these years.  




Galston, William  A. (2001). “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education.

                Annual Reviews in Political Science 4: 217-34

      This article focuses on how civic engagement increased after many years of civic education being on the decline. Galston suggests that the major reason for this decline has to do with educational background. He also suggests that it is important to teach civic education in the classroom, along with community-based civic experience. His findings suggest that public schools are the most appropriate for forming citizens and private schools have too many antidemocratic principles and elitism underlying, therefore making private schools the least effective in civic education.

Green, Donald P., Alan S. Gerber and David W. Nickerson. (2003). “Getting out the Vote in Local Elections:

                Results from Six Door-to-Door Canvassing Experiments.” The Journal of Politics: 65 (4). pp. 1083-                                1096

                This article focuses on voter mobilization experiments in six different cities around the country. In each city, people were encouraged to talk to a group of registered voters, and this group was nonpartisan. From this study, the authors conclude that face-to-face voter mobilization is very effective in terms of stimulating voter turnout., and does not involve a large budget to mobilize the vote.

Jacobson, Gary C. (2007). “Referendum: The 2006 Congressional Elections.” Political Science Quarterly: 122(1).

                This article focuses on mainly the 2006 midterm elections and checking President Bush’s performance as well as the Republican Party’s performance. People looked at three main factors: the number of seats the president’s party holds, the economy, and the public views of the president’s performance. Get-out-the-vote methods were aggressive in the Democratic Party, which caused there to be a Democratic tide. The Democrats were generally unhappy with President Bush’s performance. The author also suggests that the future of Democrats is diverse and will succeed politically if they pursue popular centrist policies instead of making a move turns the hard left.

Kes-Erkul, Aysu and R. Erdem Erkul. (2009). “Web 2.0 in the Process of e-Participation: The Case of

                Organizing for America and the Obama Administration.” University of Massachusetts – Amherst

                Scholar Works. Paper 32

                This paper focuses on the influence of the web in Organizing for America, the Obama campaign’s project for off-election years. Overall, the Obama campaign was aggressive in their Web 2.0 tools and used them very effectively to reach the public and gain support as well as collect data about potential and current supporters. The authors suggested that because of the usage of Web 2.0 in the Obama campaign, particularly in 2008, these tools will become more common in political campaigns between politics and people, and will only continue to grow.

Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skoccol and John Coggin. (2011). “The Tea Party and the Remaking of

                Republican Conservatism..” Perspectives on Politics: 9(1).       

                In this article, the authors discuss the large emergence of the Tea Party movement after the upset in 2008 for Republicans. They were able to motivate white middle-class conservatives and completely reshape the Republican Party, which made them very successful in 2010. The authors argue that the Tea Party concerns exist within anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in society, but also have very innovative organizational methods. The Tea Party overall re-branded the Republican Party as a whole, even though some moderate conservatives disagreed with the Tea Party message.  

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