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Are Political Parties and Campaigns Reaching Young People in Civic Deserts?

Youth who live in places where they perceive few opportunities for civic engagement see fewer political ads, which is connected to lower voter turnout.

Three out of five young Americans in rural areas (and one-third of urban/suburban youth) live in civic deserts: places where they perceive a lack of resources and opportunities for engagement through traditional community institutions and organizations.1 But at least one avenue for civic participation can theoretically reach young people everywhere: political parties and electoral campaigns anxious to mobilize voters. Our analysis finds that, at least by two measures—contact by campaigns and exposure to political ads—campaigns did manage to reach youth in civic deserts, though to a lesser extent than for young people with moderate or high access to civic opportunities and institutions. In our view, no areas are contacted at a rate that would increase engagement.

While by no means the only way to engage young people in civic and political life, elections are an especially valuable opportunity. Youth across the country have the opportunity to vote in national, state, and local races,2 and our research has consistently shown that contact by political campaigns is effective in engaging young people and driving voter turnout. This contact is particularly critical in civic deserts, where young people are less likely to vote than their peers in places where they perceive higher access to civic opportunities.

According to our Millennial polls conducted just before and after the 2016 election, young people in civic deserts were about as likely as other youth to be contacted at least once by a political campaign—roughly 50% received that sort of direct outreach. It’s important to note that, because living in civic deserts is correlated with living in rural areas, it is possible that the urban/rural split contributes at least partially to this relationship.

Even in Battleground States, Youth in Civic Deserts Less Likely to See “A Lot” of Political Ads

Political ads can also play a role in informing and engaging young people during election season, and having seen political ads correlates with an increased likelihood of casting a ballot.

In 2016, youth in civic deserts were not substantially less likely than others to see political ads. About 1 in 5 young people (22%) in civic deserts had seen no political ads at all in the week before being surveyed during October 2016, compared with 18% of youth in areas with moderate or high access to civic resources. By the same token, while more than 1 in 5 of moderate/high access youth said they saw “a lot” of political ads, that number was 15% for youth in civic deserts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most salient driver of differences in advertising exposure was whether young people lived in a “battleground” state. Across all levels of civic access, respondents in battlegrounds were more likely to report that they had seen “some” or “a lot” of advertisements, whereas youth living in a state projected as uncompetitive more often said they had seen none of just a few. Almost 50% of youth in battlegrounds viewed “some” or “a lot” of ads, whereas almost 35% in non-battlegrounds said the same. However, one noticeable difference emerged among youth living in battleground states: 31% of respondents from high access areas reported that they’d seen a lot of ads, versus just 24% from moderate access areas and 19% from civic deserts.

There were also differences in exposure to news and information about the election generally, which might be more likely to explain differences in turnout by access. For example, young people in civic deserts reported less “incidental exposure” (i.e. exposure while they were doing something else) to information about the 2016 election.

Less Likely to See Ads on Social Media, but More Likely to be Activated on Social Media

There were also differences in the platforms through which young people were exposed to political ads. About 70% of all young people reported having seen political ads on television, still the dominant medium for such ads. In all other media formats, youth in civic deserts lagged somewhat behind in terms of exposure, though sometimes not by much. The bigger gaps manifested in ad consumption on podcasts/radio, on websites and specifically on Facebook; in those cases, youth in civic deserts were 10 percentage points less likely than others to come across political ads. These gaps may reflect differences in young people’s media attention and in their personal networks, which may affect things like the level of political discourse on social media.

Yet social media is a good strategy to reach youth in civic deserts. Beyond being a platform for political ads and information, for youth who perceive they live in civic deserts social media can play a key role in activating their engagement. Both before and after the election, youth in civic deserts were more likely than their peers to report taking action on political or social issues because of something they read on social media. Almost 40% of youth in civic deserts decided to engage “over the previous month,” compared to a quarter of youth with high civic access.

It is important to understand these differences in information and activation through different media platforms and, indeed, all differences between youth in civic deserts and their peers with better access to civic opportunities. Opportunity/outreach often facilitates engagement. But political targeting influences who is contacted, which is itself influenced by previous engagement. The implications of these dynamics deserve thoughtful consideration. As political parties, candidates for office, and others strive to engage youth, they should carefully tailor their messages and methods to reach young people who may be especially disconnected and discouraged by the lack of resources and institutions they perceive. At the same time, electoral outreach is clearly playing an important role connecting youth to democratic life and helping to combat the civic inequities young people may experience because of where they happen to live.

[1] This analysis focuses on youth 18-34 years old.

[2] There are exceptions, including the District of Columbia, where votes in presidential elections are not considered. Additionally, youth with felony convictions are disenfranchised in some states.