With the polls running so close, the 3 million voters between 18-24 have the power to decide the election’s outcome. These votes however, are famously difficult to win: In 2005 only 38.2% of those eligible to vote actually cast their vote (with that number rising to only 51.8% in the 2010 election). Their turn out in this election could be even lower as the number of young voters registered has fallen by 50% after changes to the system of registration were made. Young people are now responsible to register themselves individually rather than having the head of the household register the whole family.
The number of youth voters contrast with the three quarters of the so-called Grey Vote (those aged 65 and over) who do turn up to vote. The concerns held by this electorate group are very different from those of younger voters as they focus on immigration, taxation and the NHS rather than the cost of living, tuition fees, affordable housing and youth unemployment.
Instead of relying on these younger voters to tune into debates and read newspapers, politicians must utilise this new hyper-connected world of social media platforms. Around 90% of young people use social media, spending hours of their lives online compared to only half of those aged 65+. So the question is not how important social media is, but are any politicians harnessing readily available platforms effectively?
With 41% of the UK’s youth voters undecided, social media could be the key to winning their vote. If Cameron, Miliband and Clegg learn to use social media as effectively as President Obama did in the 2012 presidential election, they won’t simply swing the polls in their parties favour but may also increase youth voter turnout.
In the 2012 American Presidential Elections, 60% of voters aged 18-24 ,who cast their vote, did so for President Obama. Not only were the youth of America distancing themselves from their more conservative elders but Obama had also learned how to effectively galvanize them. Obama poured money into his digital campaign, spending $47 million, ten times more than the Romney campaign, and hired a team not of political advisors but of technologists and digital analysts to advise him. These coders and digital engineers transformed the way in which Obama used the web to reach voters.
Leading up to the election, Obama utilized his staff and ample digital campaign funding to make himself ubiquitous on media both traditional and new. He and his wife made appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a late night show primarily watched by college students and those in their early 20s. On Fallon’s show, Obama focused on policies directed towards a younger age demographic but also showed he was ‘down with the kids’ by ”slow-jamming” the news during the opening monologue. While many of those older than 30 find the new platform of social media daunting, Obama seemed to use it with ease, with a presence not only on Twitter but also Instagram and the growing platform of YouTube.
With a single post or video Obama was able to instantly reach young people through the media on which they spend much of their lives. At least half of Obama’s target voters (those aged 18-29) were unreachable by phone but 85% were friends with users of Obama’s Facebook app. With a single post addressing 600,000 Obama app users, the campaign was able to reach a further 5 million voters. And of those voters, 20% went on to take some sort of political action. Obama also used his twitter live updates, direct followers to his website, spread campaign posters and trending hashtags (#obama2012).
Although it is undeniably important, social media alone will not win the youth vote. Young voters, like their elder counterparts, expect political leaders to seriously address their concerns. When asked, those aged 17-25 listed affordable living and unemployment as their chief concerns. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed and to have lower wages than older voters. It wasn’t unexpected when Labour recently announced policies meant to appeal specifically to younger voters.
Labour has shaped their campaign on what they call a ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ and a promise to lower tuition fees by £3,000. Despite protests from fellow parliamentarians, Ed Miliband has promised, unlike Nick Clegg, he will deliver 100% on these lower tuition fees. Though Labour is now polling at only 32% with decided young voters, with over two months until May 7th, everything is still up for grabs.