By Loren Merchan and Matt Royer

Up until now, the digital playbook has been pretty standard. There may be a few variations, but most candidates and organizations invest most of their money and energy into traditional media in an attempt to appeal to Americans over the age of 55. Sure, plenty of campaigns make the customary overtures to younger voters, but these efforts have been little more than an afterthought. Why? Because conventional wisdom says that baby-boomers are the most likely demographic to vote.

That’s starting to change in a big way. Progressives need to stop doing what everyone has always done and start really investing in these young voters or they risk losing an entire generation.

There are a LOT of Millennial Voters (and they vote for progressives)

Millennials are currently the largest generation of Americans eligible to vote (a title that Baby Boomers had for four decades) and they are rapidly increasing their influence. 2016 was the first time in decades that Baby Boomers and older represented fewer than half of all votes, a trend likely to continue due to immigration and increased naturalizations.

And by the way, the idea that young people don’t vote is another relic of the past. Millennials do show up at the polls, and when they do, they vote for progressive candidates. In the 2017 gubernatorial election, Virginia voters aged 18-29 had a turnout rate of 34%. Not only did 69% of those voters support Northam, plenty of them ran for office too — in fact, Virginia millennial candidates won over half of the House of Delegates seats that are changing hands.

Progressives can’t take young voters for granted, though. Millennials will show up but you have to work for them just like every other voter. Not only did President Trump win in 2016 with relatively little TV advertising and a strong and early digital investment but Karen Handel beat Jon Ossoff by 9,702 votes for GA-06 – an election that saw $42 million of the $50 million spent go to TV and radio. In July, John Podesta said that the Clinton campaign “didn’t do enough persuasion through social media channels” and “relied overwhelmingly on television to do persuasion.”

Millennials Respond To Digital Outreach

Barack Obama’s use of digital media in 2008 was unprecedented and it wound up cementing his already-strong appeal to younger voters. Eight years later we saw millennial involvement and influence jump again for a Bernie Sanders campaign that went all-in on digital, helping him dramatically increase name recognition and even win upsets in states like Michigan (where he won 81% of young voters).

More recent progressive victories can largely be attributed to digital outreach as well. Doug Jones, who employed a texting program and digital advertising, won the under-30 vote in Alabama (60% to Roy Moore’s 38%, which translated to approximately 105,000 votes for Jones) and won by a 21,000 vote margin because of it.

The success of these campaigns makes perfect sense when you look at how the media landscape is being reshaped. Consider trends like cord cutting, smartphones and social media and you start to see why digital is becoming more important. Over the last few years in the United States alone, the traditional TV viewing audience has decreased by 33% as millennials opt to stream their TV for news and entertainment rather than pay for expensive cable packages.

Even voters that still watch traditional TV no longer give it their undivided attention. Millennials and Gen Z engage in an average of four other activities while the TV is on – 70% of millennials watch content on another device during commercials (some studies have shown that most of them don’t even look up from their devices during that time), and 71% engage with social media while watching TV.

The reality is that the largest block of eligible voters has never lived in a world without the internet or the iPhone. Digital content is what young voters use to educate themselves on issues — not TV and print media. The candidates that won in 2017 were the candidates that invested in a new audience and new ways to reach them.

Millennials Are High-Information

According to consumer experts, Gen Zers make decisions based on quality rather than brand loyalty. They’re not interested in keeping up with a single company on principle and will be more likely to spring for the newest and best product. The same goes for political candidates and movements.

In addition, young voters are used to being a part of a conversation, rather than the target of slogans, thanks to Facebook and Twitter. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2016, 94% of online users have at least one social media account and 39% of people over the age of 18 have used social media to participate in political activities, while 67% of all 18 to 30-year olds have engaged in a social media-based political activity.

These voters don’t go online just to consume content. They want to contribute. Social media has become a place for young people to speak their minds on current social issues, contribute to political campaigns, and even take action by speaking to their representatives and elected officials.

Rather than talking at young people, the way that traditional media does, digital platforms and resources that these voters are using on a daily basis allow candidates and organizations to meet them where they are in order to engage and motivate them.

Looking Ahead

It’s time to recognize that in an age when voters are using digital to educate themselves, they are justifiably skeptical of being told what to do without the ability to respond. Putting in the effort to build trust and support with young voters could pay off on election day.

The age of the traditional 32-inch screened newsreel is over and the age of the digital 5-inch screen world is just beginning. It’s time for progressives to catch up and use it to our advantage, or risk falling farther behind.


Loren Merchan serves as Revolution Messaging’s Vice President of Advertising, leading the Advertising team as it plans and executes award-winning ad campaigns.

Matt Royer is as a Digital Advertising Account Manager, he specializes in digital advocacy, strategy, messaging and communications.