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Youth in Politics: On the Ground in the 2016 Primaries

Learn about the work of organizations that worked to engage local youth in key states during the 2016 primaries.

When it comes to understanding youth political engagement, it’s critical to look at both data and dynamics on the ground. As a result, to supplement CIRCLE’s primary and caucus analyses, we are also asking practitioners to provide reflections on their work with youth in a given state. These reflections come from different types of organizations—from news media, to schools, to nonprofits— since building sustainable opportunities for youth engagement requires engagement from multiple sectors using multiple strategies.

Below are reflections from organizations who worked to engage youth ahead of their state's primaries or caucuses. While they reflect the organization's perspectives and experiences, not necessarily those of CIRCLE, we want to highlight the important work being done to include young people in the decisions we make as a nation.


Stefanie Wager, Social Studies Consultant, Iowa Department of Education

The Iowa caucuses play an important role on the national scene, but often Iowa students, and even adults, struggle to understand a very basic question: What are the caucuses and why do they matter? To help students learn about the caucuses, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office reached out to the Iowa Department of Education to create a curriculum entitled Caucus 101 (see The curriculum includes seven days of lesson plans ranging from the history of the caucuses to how to conduct a mock caucus. Teachers can download 30, 60, or 90 minute lessons that include several resources such as videos, links to articles, PowerPoints, etc.

As an outgrowth of the curriculum, the Secretary of State’s Office organized mock caucuses and a straw poll for students across the state. The Iowa Department of Education worked to publicize these and promote student participation in them. The turnout was tremendous.  Over 60,000 Iowa students voted in the straw poll, for example.  Teachers have reported that this has been a helpful tool for their own learning and to better connect the Iowa caucuses to the general teaching of elections and the voting process.

Moving forward, we plan on continuing to work together to strengthen civic knowledge and engagement within the state of Iowa.

Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa launched the Latino Vote Iowa caucus campaign project in October 2015 to educate and engage the Latino community to participate in the Iowa Caucuses. The campaign consisted of caucus trainings that took place across the state, as well as mailings, door-to-door neighborhood canvassing, and phone calls to the 50,000 registered Latino voters in the state. The fastest-growing sector of the Latino population is its youth, so campaign staff wanted to reach out to eligible-age prospective caucus-goers.

The Latino Vote Iowa campaign held trainings for Latino youth in high school and college. During the weeks leading up to the Feb. 1 caucuses, LULAC created a partnership with Des Moines Public Schools, the largest school system in the state of Iowa, for campaign members to meet with about 600 high school students in the district’s five high schools. Twenty-five percent of the student body is Hispanic. The relationship was crucial in that it inspired all students, not just Latinos, to become engaged in the political process. Campaign staff explained to students the power they could have in the political process and in selecting the nation’s next president. Latino Vote Iowa Political Director Christian Ucles shared his experiences of first caucusing as a 17-year-old student. He educated students about the caucuses, explained how they work in each political party, and then held a mock caucus with students.

LULAC received positive responses from the students we met— college-age students worked on the caucus campaign, and high school students inquired as to how they could register to vote and become involved with the precinct on caucus night. Our hope is these students feel inspired by the stories they heard of youth making a difference and that their participation on caucus night is only the beginning of them exercising their political voice.

Amalie Nash, VP for News and Engagement, The Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register, fueled by a Knight News Challenge prototype grant, took a two-pronged approach to reaching younger voters in advance of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. These initiatives were designed to spark interest in a typically underrepresented group of voters and to give voice to younger Iowans who don’t always see their perspectives reflected in traditional media.

“Give a Damn, Des Moines”: The Register and Des Moines Social Club partnered for a unique series of events to spark voter registration and teach first-time caucus-goers the process. The series included a get-out-the-vote party, two mock caucuses, a discussion between the state’s party chairs and a politically themed fashion show. The events, which attracted hundreds, were popular because of their approach. For example, the mock caucus to teach the Democratic caucus process had participants caucusing for their favorite Iowa brewery in a festive atmosphere that that was both fun and educational. The concept also will live on, with future events to inspire involvement in state and local politics.

“Our Caucus”: The Register sought to find young Iowans with varied perspectives to chronicle their personal journey toward picking a candidate and ultimately caucusing. Twelve Iowans were selected from among the applicants, representing different political affiliations, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Their work— stories, videos and photos— were published on Medium and also on the Register’s platforms.

I think the key to engaging with a younger demographic is to have a unique hook and to make sure you’re speaking to the issues they care about. Another important component was partnering with an organization— the Des Moines Social Club— that already reaches and has the respect of that audience.

Mikva Challenge

From January 14-17, Mikva Challenge took 120 youth from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Southern California to Des Moines, IA to pull back the curtain on what a presidential campaign entails and to give students a chance to campaign for various candidates in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses. Students were broken up into groups, and over the course of the weekend each group tried to accrue as many different experiences as possible: visiting different candidates’ offices and talking with staff, door-knocking, phone-banking, attending rallies and town halls with candidates themselves, and ultimately all attending an issues summit together at which they had the opportunity to caucus for different issues they hope candidates will address in 2016. We also asked students to participate in a digital scavenger hunt all weekend to encourage them to share their experiences via social media; hundreds of their enthusiastic posts can be found at and

This was the 5th presidential primary cycle that Mikva Challenge has run such a trip, and like in past years the impacts were numerous and life changing for all involved. The campaigns were profuse in their thanks, describing students as “fantastic and such a big help at each of the staging locations they went to.” Teachers who chaperoned the trip reported that they loved watching their students and came away feeling energized themselves. The greatest impacts, however, were of course felt by the students themselves. “I learned that as a 17-year-old I can do something to influence candidates for the presidency,” One student wrote afterward. Regardless of whether they were assigned to a candidate they initially supported, students reported appreciating the opportunity to learn more about their positions and to meet other volunteers who did support those candidates. Perhaps most importantly, many youth reported that their biggest takeaway was the discovery that they are not alone in caring about their communities, issues and politics— that there are other youth like them and that together they feel empowered to work together to make the change they seek, both in this election cycle and moving forward. One student summed it up best when she wrote on the way home: “I am going to look for ways to get involved and also gain more knowledge about the issues in my community and how they can be improved.”

NextGen Climate

During the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, NextGen Climate worked to engage voters by seeking pledges to vote for candidates that support clean energy. NextGen Climate, an organization that works to bring climate change and clean energy to the forefront of American politics, created a robust field program, sophisticated paid media campaigns, fun and unique campus events. Over a third of the 30,000 Iowans who pledged are under the age of 35; Next Gen Climate worked on promoting caucus participation on 20+ college campuses in Iowa. NextGen Climate is also providing prospective caucus-goers with information on where their caucus location is, and an opportunity to make a social media shareable for a Democratic candidate with a quote about why.

New Hampshire

CIVIC at Tufts University

On the cold morning of Saturday, February 4, 25 Tufts students boarded a bus, hoping to catch several candidates as they prepared for the all-important New Hampshire primary. The trip was organized by CIVIC, a Tufts student organization that aims to promote nonpartisan, civil dialogue, and funded by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, which promotes civic learning and engagement at Tufts. Students were able to attend a Chris Christie rally in Bedford, NH, where they saw the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts stump for Christie. Following the endorsements of the two governors, the students were treated to a classic Chris Christie speech filled with swagger, straight talk, and the occasional self-deprecating fat joke. As an added bonus, several students were interviewed by members of the media, including a journalist from the British paper The Guardian and the host of Fox Business’ Kennedy.

The other stop during the trip was with the Kasich campaign at its Manchester headquarters. As they exited the bus, the students were handed Kasich signs and instructed to chant pro-Kasich slogans as the campaign bus rolled in. However, when the candidate stepped out of the bus, there was no speaker system, and most had to strain to hear what Kasich was saying. Although the event only consisted of a brief speech and a few picture requests, the students were given a valuable lesson regarding the daily grind of a presidential campaign. Overall, the day was an excellent opportunity for politically minded Tufts students to not only see the candidates up close, but also to examine the not-so-publicized aspects of a campaign.

Yong Jung Cho, campaign coordinator at 350Action 

For 7 months, 350 Action in New Hampshire has been training and organizing young people to challenge presidential candidates to have a climate plan that keeps fossil fuels in the ground and ensures a just transition to a renewable energy economy. To highlight the deep connection between the fossil fuel industry and some politicians, hundreds of students and young people have pranked climate denying presidential candidates with “I’m with climate denier tshirts” or presented them with awards and fake checks from the Koch brothers. With the next generation at risk of not living on a sustainable planet and the youth vote up for grabs, the media reported on the pranks too. It’s unacceptable to be running for president and a climate denier.

At the same time, we saw Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton reject the Keystone XL pipeline, say no to Arctic and offshore drilling and promise no new leases for fossil fuel companies on public lands. Young people have powerfully and relentlessly called out climate deniers and pushed those that want to be climate champions to be better. Through verbal interruptions, banner drops, photo bombs and simple questions in the town hall and on the rope line, young people have shifted candidates (particularly Hillary Clinton) and defined what climate leadership means to them. Elections do not need to be about one candidate vs another; there are more ways to engage in our democracy and people can show candidates how to earn their vote. With climate being a top issue for most young people, youth and students have shown incredible leadership thus far and I imagine climate will continue to be one of the top issues in the 2016 election.

Joe Liberti, AP U.S. Government Teacher

Politics is a learned behavior and learning is best done by doing – actively engaging in real-world, public experiences. Too often we adults tell young people that they should be engaged citizens when they turn 18, as if the voting age is some magical point of demarcation. How can we expect young people to be engaged and informed citizens when we don’t allow them to practice authentic participation now? As an extension of my AP U.S. Government & Politics class, I, with the help of colleagues, took 115 of my students to the NH primary for 3 nights and 4 days.

Eighty-nine students volunteered for 3 different campaigns – Sanders, Clinton, and Rubio. They engaged in GOTV, e.g. phone banking and canvassing, as well as attended many candidate-sponsored events (lots of selfies).  These volunteers also maintained a teacher-produced journal, which included questions connecting content/concepts with their on-the-ground experiences. Volunteers also updated their fellow students and the wider community about the campaign by posting on shared Instagram and Twitter accounts. In addition, my colleague headed up a 21-student journalism team that reported on seven different candidates. These student journalists were responsible for studying their respective candidate, attending candidate events, asking questions of the candidates, and filing their stories by 7:00 p.m.  A five-student videography team rounded out the experience by documenting students’ experiences as they engaged, questioned, and participated in the NH Primary.

As one parent wrote me tonight, “I cannot remember when I have seen my son so engaged, enthusiastic and excited as he has been these last four days.” But it wasn’t just parents responding this way. One student wrote, “Over dinner tonight with my family, I spoke with enthusiasm about the NH primary trip and how it opened my eyes to how our electoral process works and will enable me to make a more educated decision for my for first presidential election in 2016.”

American Democracy Project

The American Democracy Project (ADP) is a non-partisan network of more than 260 public colleges and universities that are members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) focused on preparing students to be informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. ADP campuses are committed to advancing non-partisan student political engagement. This commitment has manifested itself in a number of national and campus-specific efforts to engage students in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primaries. In particular, in partnership with Keene State College (KSC), ADP has offered AASCU campuses nationwide the opportunity to participate in live-streamed town hall meetings with presidential candidates visiting KSC, including Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and Republicans Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Twelve Rhode Island College students enrolled in a campaign course taught by campus ADP co-chairs traveled to the primaries to follow a particular candidate and to share their observations, photos, and videos from NH with the social media audience of Rhode Island’s NBC10 station.

New Hampshire Public Television

New Hampshire Public Television coordinates a New Hampshire primary mock election for students every four years. This mock election allows students in grades K-12 the chance to research and vote for candidates a week before the New Hampshire Primary. This project is part of New Hampshire Public Television’s participation in the National Student/Parent Mock Election. Schools and classes are free to hold their elections in any way they like. We provide them with web-based resources and learning resources as well as candidate profiles.


Nevada Media Alliance

As part of the ONA Challenge Fund grant, the Nevada Media Alliance coordinated two initiatives related to youth and the Nevada caucuses: Dance for Democracy and journalism student coverage. Noticiero Móvil hosted a mock caucus event called “Dance for Democracy”. We partnered with the national organization Voto Latino and hosted the event at a local Latin nightclub, Mambos. The goal was to create a fun and engaging way to teach young voters about the caucusing process in Nevada.

The students in J460 News Studio at the Reynolds School of Journalism organized and promoted the event in a three week period, and emceed the event.

This is the first of at least three events the students intend to host in the spring to create community dialogue around politics and civic engagement among young voters.

The Reynolds School of Journalism faculty organized an event called “RSJ Rocks the Caucus” to give students experience covering live political events. As part of that, two students published work in TeenVogue about their experiences caucusing for Bernie Sanders (One word: Chaos), and others contributed via the Nevada Media Alliance. The coverage will continue for the Republican caucus in Nevada.

Inspire Nevada

Inspire Nevada is the newest nonpartisan civic engagement and leadership organization under Inspire US. In Las Vegas, we selected 37 Inspired Leaders from 6 high schools to be a part of our program. Our Inspired Leaders had their Leadership Academy on January 30th. Each of the 6 high schools has registered their peers through class presentations, assemblies, and voter registration drives during lunch. The goal for each school is to register 85% of their senior class. These Inspired Leaders are remarkable and are very dedicated to giving a voice to the youth. Our Inspired Leaders were informed about the caucuses through social media posts and newsletters. Through conversation and social media, our Inspired Leaders have been informing their peers about the caucuses.

The mission of Inspire US is to transform young leaders’ inspiration into action that improves their communities and strengthens our democracy. We work with high school juniors and seniors to have a voice in their communities through voter registration and civic action. Throughout the program, we work with students on voter registration drives, candidate forums to bridge the gap between the youth and legislators, and ways to improve the issues important to the youth.

South Carolina

Tashfia Hasan, member of the University of South Carolina Upstate community

As the fight for the Millennial vote rages on, candidates in the 2016 presidential race have been particularly careful to make appearances on college campuses. Recently, the University of South Carolina Upstate hosted Olympic medalist, Michelle Kwan, and former President Bill Clinton, on behalf of Secretary Hillary Clinton, as well as prominent social activist, Dr. Cornel West, on behalf of Senator Bernie Sanders. Each guest spoke briefly about their own journeys and how they found themselves becoming so invested in this particularly heated presidential race.

These prominent speakers captivated students by personalizing the events as much as they were able. By appealing to students by discussing each candidate’s views on resolving the growing issue of student loan debt, each speaker was able to really engage the crowd. Kwan, President Clinton, and Dr. West spoke to the candidates’ views as they related to advocating for groups such as women, people of color, and students; access to quality healthcare; and other hot button issues. A theme that was consistent between the three events, regardless of differences in Clinton’s and Sanders’ platforms, is the need to continue the momentum the speakers believe that President Barack Obama’s presidency has created.


Mikva Challenge

In the weeks leading up to the Illinois primary, Mikva Challenge students and teachers have been actively engaged in elections up and down the ticket, making sure that youth voices are heard in a variety of different ways.

  • So You Want to Hold a Voter Registration Drive…This is the second primary election in which Illinois 17-year-olds have been eligible to vote if they will be 18 by the general election, and as a result students at many schools organized voter registration drives to make sure their peers are set to vote. In early February, Mikva supported this work by holding a workshop open to both students AND teachers interested in coming together to learn the basics requirements and deadlines and brainstorm creative ways to inform, encourage and engage their peers in registering and making plans to vote.
  • State’s Attorney Voter Values: At Mikva, we believe that being engaged must go hand in hand with being informed. Following the release of the Laquan McDonald video last November, the race for Cook County State’s Attorney quickly gained national attention, with incumbent Anita Álvarez and challenger Kim Foxx suddenly becoming household names with which many Chicago youth were familiar—even as voters of all ages remained hazy on what exactly the duties and responsibilities of the State’s Attorney actually are. To help teachers engage students in debate and discussion around these responsibilities and which should take priority, we created a lesson and shared it with teachers, along with contact information for all three candidates’ offices so students could get directly involved with the campaign of their chosen candidate.
  • Campaign Wednesdays/Saturdays: Contrary to popular opinion and stereotypes, youth are not apathetic—they’re just uninvited. Expecting youth to find, reach out to, and show up to campaign offices on their own is a lot to put on a young person’s plate, especially if they have no idea what to expect once there. To reduce these barriers, Mikva continued its second year worth of Campaign Wednesdays, a weekly open-house campaign day where students were invited to meet at Mikva after school for pizza and bus cards before heading out in groups to visit different campaign offices. Students’ motivation for attending the first time varied from being very interested in a candidate, to needing service learning hours, to being dragged along by a friend for the pizza, but regardless of which factor got them in the door, each one left with a better idea of what campaigning entails, more info about the candidate, and at least a little less fear of phonebanking and/or canvassing.
  • Voting Early and Often: Registration is one thing, but making sure voters turn out is another. Luckily, the Chicago Board of Elections makes early voting EASY by hosting two weeks of early voting with one location in every ward, and the added bonus that city residents can register and vote at any one of these locations. As a result, increasing numbers of teachers and students partner each year with Mikva, the CPS Office of Civic Engagement and Service Learning, and other civic ed organizations like Chicago Votes to plan and execute early voting field trips that can be as simple as one class walking to the nearby library to vote over lunch or as elaborate as the whole school’s worth of seniors parading to the nearby polls accompanied by the drum corps from their marching band (as Curie HS did last week).

Reclaim Chicago

Reclaim Chicago engaged students from seven campuses across the Chicagoland area in leadership roles leading up to the March 15 Illinois primary. Students were part of the endorsement process and heavily engaged in canvassing for various candidates. The campuses engaged were University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago State University, and Governor’s State University.

Students on each campus recruited teams of volunteers weekly for 10 weeks, led phone banks and canvasses, trained volunteers, and consistently produced 30% of Reclaim Chicago’s overall canvass and phone bank turnout. This means that, on GOTV weekend alone, Reclaim students produced 75 volunteer shifts, made 10,500 calls, and knocked on 300 doors. Students canvassed on campus as well as in the broader community. On Election Day, four volunteer students ran staging locations without paid staff assistance.

This level of engagement and student leadership was possible because the students were clear on their stake in this election—students lead local issue campaigns which are impacted by who is in office and who the elected officials feel accountable to. Reclaim Chicago and Student Action, the national partner, invest in extensive leadership training and mentorship of students in order to build strong self-sustaining campus bases that get stronger with time, rather than dwindle as leaders graduate. Students associated with Reclaim and the sister 501c4 organization, The People’s Lobby, have been involved in non-presidential primary work in Chicago for the past three years, and their engagement has only grown over time. Now many of those same students are working for elected officials and on a path to running for office, themselves. Furthermore, what Reclaim students have built is a model for Student Action across the country. For the 2016 general election, we plan to engage students in similar work on down-ballot races as well as the presidential race in at least seven states, driving enthusiasm no matter who the presidential candidates are.

Super Tuesday

Roosevelt Network (Virginia & Colorado)

Roosevelt Network members at George Mason University in Virgina encouraged their peers to vote in Virginia’s primaries on Super Tuesday. But, they’ve also done 16 lobby visits with their state representatives to emphasize the importance of youth policy priorities and how young voters can be engaged in the state political process. They touched on issues of campus sexual assault, the local economy, education and affordable housing. They also met with the Speaker of the Virginia General Assembly. Virginia students also organizing town halls post the primary for state representatives ahead of the general election. Finally, these students organize weekly meetings on their own campus educating their peers on political issues with a local lens—-bringing in community-based groups to help them in their civic education.

In Colorado, ahead of the caucus, Roosevelt Network members in Denver attended a University of Denver forum for state and local elected officials with their fellow college students from neighboring campuses. Twelve local and state decisionmakers came to discuss the issues most important to young voters in the state. Roosevelt followed up with meeting on the capitol as well. Coloradan students are currently planning another organizing meeting on human rights with decision makers to be held in the coming weeks.

Matt Mueller, James Madison University (Virginia)

Last August the Harrisonburg City Council approved the on-campus voting precinct for James Madison University after a student-led initiative spearheaded by my predecessor Josh Humphries. In the first four weeks of 2016, DukesVote, which is a student-led civic engagement initiative composed of Student Government, Virginia 21, College Democrats, and College Republicans registered over 2,000 people to vote. By the close of the polls on Super Tuesday 1,076 people had voted in our on-campus precinct, with over 90% of them students. Out of the 8 precincts in Harrisonburg, we were 3rd in overall participation and only 104 voters away from being the precinct with the highest turnout.