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What Parties do to Engage and Mobilize Youth: A Literature Review of Five Countries

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1.0 Introduction

This review provides Elections Canada with an overview of academic research that illuminates how candidates and political parties engage and mobilize young electors. Interest in this field emerged from the National Youth Survey,Footnote 2 which found youth were more likely to vote if contacted by parties or candidates. The purpose of this review is to identify and describe outreach strategies and practices used by candidates and political parties to engage and mobilize youth, and to assess, where possible, their effectiveness and appeal. This will provide context to inform future research and education initiatives as well as Elections Canada's engagement with political parties.

The first section provides a review of relevant literature, including theories of political participation, the framework of engagement and mobilization, and the main challenges to youth outreach. The second section examines outreach directed at youth from a comparative perspective. Cases are selected from the following jurisdictions: Canada, US, UK, New Zealand and Finland. Following an examination of the case studies, the review highlights notable practices in terms of youth engagement and mobilization. The review concludes with points of consideration for the Canadian context and suggests areas for future research.

1.1 Why Are Political Parties Important?

Political parties are necessary and desirable institutions for democracy (van Biezen 2004),Footnote 3 and, according to McAllister (2011, x) "Political parties shape [our] whole political process." Reflecting this central place in politics, political parties have multiple roles. For example, they recruit candidates to contest elections, organize platforms for the electorate to judge at the ballot box, and provide a venue for citizens' involvement and input into politics. Diamond and Gunther (2001) have organized parties' responsibilities into seven common, but unique, functions:

  • Candidate nomination: Parties organize the process to identify and select candidates to contest elections.
  • Electoral mobilization: Parties reach out to the electorate for support for their candidates and facilitate political participation.
  • Issue structuring: Parties organize platforms that highlight issues out of many alternatives.
  • Societal representation: Parties provide avenues for groups to gain representation.
  • Interest aggregation: Parties use the preferences of individuals to craft a broad public appeal.
  • Forming and sustaining governments: Parties help to organize government and opposition roles, helping to ensure that accountability to the electorate is maintained.
  • Societal integration: Parties enable citizens to participate effectively in the political process.Footnote 4

Parties' fulfillment of these functions, however, is shaped in practice by the decisions they take on how to allocate their limited resources, and their respective objectives.Footnote 5

This literature review focuses on two of their functions: engagement and mobilizationFootnote 6 of youth. This review is particularly timely given the broad state of flux faced by many political parties in advanced industrial democracies (Mair, Muller and Plasser 2004). Parties are currently navigating a decline in partisan identification, the rise of new communication technologies and revised electoral rules, among other challenges. As a result, some political parties may be open to considering the evolution of youth outreach practices.

Notably, political parties' engagement and mobilization activities can be difficult to research as parties may be purposefully opaque with their internal decisions and operations in an effort to maintain a competitive edge over their competitors.Footnote 7

1.2 Important Terminology

Before reviewing the literature, it is helpful to clarify key terms. A "political system" refers to institutional arrangement of governance and division of power in a country. For example, Canada has a Westminster Parliamentary system. An "electoral system" is the process by which voters' preferences are translated into support for candidates or parties. For example, the first past the post is a form of plurality majority using single-member districts, while another is proportional representation, in which parties receive seats in proportion to their overall share of the national vote (Reynolds, Reilly, and Ellis 2005). Both the political system and electoral system can shape political party behaviour.

"Engagement" enables citizens to participate effectively in the political process and ideally ensures that citizens feel they have a vested interest in the political system (Diamond and Gunther 2001, 8). Engagement is reflected by parties' efforts to be participatory, inclusive and responsive to citizens. In practice, this covers a spectrum of party activities beyond voting, such as joining a party, volunteering during a campaign, donating, and providing input on platforms and policies.Footnote 8

"Mobilization" captures how parties motivate citizens to support their candidates and facilitate participation in the electoral process (Diamond and Gunther 2001, 7). Mobilization generally deals more narrowly with election campaigning efforts to get out the vote (GOTV).

While engagement and mobilization are distinct, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Some activities, for example volunteering on a campaign, can be considered an engagement effort as well as a mobilization strategy. For this review, "outreach" comprises both engagement and mobilization tactics.

The precise classification of "youth" varies throughout the literature. In some instances, scholars consider 15 to 24 years of age as youth, but others use 18 to 34 years of age. This review relies on the 18 to 34 age bracket.Footnote 9 Academic literature generally treats youth as a homogenous cohort given that age is one of the most reliable predictors of turnout (CIRCLE Staff 2012; Haid 2003)Footnote 10 and this review follows this treatment. However, future research should investigate how the differences among youth may warrant different outreach strategies.Footnote 11

1.3 Theories of Political Participation

Successful engagement and mobilization by political parties leads to increased political participation. However, political participation itself is a complex phenomenon, and has been theorized extensively. Given the scope of this review, the concepts of engagement and mobilization are briefly situated in one general model of political participation.Footnote 12

Verba, Schlozman and Brady (1995) and several other participation scholars identify three factors that determine civic and political participation: resources, interest and recruitment (Almond and Verba 1963; Barnes and Kaase 1979; Milbrath 1965; Verba and Nie 1972). Resources refer to the costs of time, money and civic skills for individuals to participate. Interest captures civic duty, interest in politics and sense of efficacy that facilitates involvement. Finally, recruitment refers to the social networks that mobilize citizens and promote participation, and is particularly salient for an analysis of outreach strategies.

Citizens participate in elections and government both because they "go to politics" and "politics comes to them" (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993, 6). Political engagement or "going to politics" presupposes political interest. Unless citizens have some degree of interest in politics, they are unlikely to devote much time and energy to keeping up with public affairs (Gidengil et al. 2004, 11). While interest at one level is waning, the literature suggests it may be cultivated via other means. This is the essence of the mobilization model referenced by Rosenstone and Hansen (1993).

Within the mobilization model, scholars assert that participation can be a response to contextual cues, such as being asked to vote or become a member by a candidate or political party.Footnote 13 Opportunities to participate are further structured by the individual's environment or network; for example, having a spouse who asks when you are going to vote (Leighley 1995, 189). Political parties, given their central role in political systems, are key agents involved in engagement and mobilization.

The most current academic literature focused on mobilization generally originates in the US (Bennion 2005; Green 2004, 2008; Green and Gerber 2001, 2005; Nickerson 2006; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). Canadian political research has yet to systematically explore how, and with what success, political parties and candidates engage with and mobilize young electors. However, scholarly analysis of voting behaviour in Canada – including among youth – has been extensive (Dalton 2011; Gidengil et al. 2004; Howe 2010; Rubenson et al. 2004). Findings from this research carry implications for youth mobilization during elections and can provide a starting point.

1.4 Habitual Versus Intermittent Non-Voters

Patterns of voting behaviour are an important consideration when implementing an outreach strategy since some types of voters are more likely to be mobilized than others (Melton 2011, 2).Footnote 14 Research describes voting as a habitual activity (Aldrich, Green and Glaser 2011; Denny and Doyle 2009; Gerber, Green and Shachar 2003; Howe 2010; Meredith 2009; Nickerson 2004). In other words, voting in one election increases individuals' probabilities of voting in the next election, with all other considerations being equal (Melton 2011). Howe provides a useful distinction between habitual voters and two types of non-voters: intermittent non-voters, who sometimes but not always vote, and habitual non-voters, who never vote (2010, 10).

Habitual non-voters cite a lack of information and understanding whereas intermittent non-voters cite a lack of time or sufficient planning when they do not vote.Footnote 15 Howe (2010 argues intermittent non-voters are more inclined to be mobilized than habitual non-voters. For intermittent non-voters, the aim is to facilitate voting as much as possible; for habitual non-voters, the goal is to motivate voting in the first place (Howe 2010; International IDEA 1999, 44).

Howe argues each classification of voter warrants a different mobilization strategy. Howe suggests those with a prior inclination to participate (i.e. intermittent non-voters) are more readily reached by formal methods of communication (Hillygus 2005; Niven 2004), whereas the habitually disengaged "are more effectively mobilized through informal inveigling by those they know personally" (Howe 2010, 220).

This raises an important question in terms of youth outreach: In which voter category does the youth cohort belong?

1.5 Debating the Effectiveness of Youth Outreach by Political Parties

Patterns of youth participation have changed since 1974 and indicate an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and habitual non-voters.Footnote 16 Nearly 36% of those under 30 can be classified as intermittent non-voters compared with 10% of those 50 and over.Footnote 17 Of particular concern is the increase of habitual non-voters who represent a new larger group of young abstainers (11.1%) – a group that was relatively non-existent in 1974 (Howe 2010).

Can youth be effectively mobilized? Most scholars agree that youth outreach can be effective; in fact, some evidence suggests that youth may be easier to mobilize than older voters (Nickerson 2006, 56).Footnote 18 However, scholars diverge on the approach. Some academics claim similar strategies will produce similar effects across age cohorts, and therefore, youth need not be singled out for a tailored strategy (Nickerson 2006). In contrast, Shea and Green (2007) argue traditional approaches are not as effective with a younger cohort.

Despite this lack of consensus in the literature, there is some convergence of opinion around the general barriers to youth engagement and mobilization. The next section summarizes three broad challenges, but precisely how these barriers weigh on Canadian parties' decision making is less clear.

1.5.1 Challenge One: Hard to Contact

Voter identification is essential for both engagement and mobilization strategies, and youth are much harder to contact than any other cohort. This is an important barrier not only because parties and candidates must allocate limited resources, but also because the success of outreach tactics depends on reaching an audience receptive to the message.

For example, Niven (2002) argues mobilization messages often fail to reach the intended audience, but if the messages did that youth would likely be responsive.

Many young people are much more mobile than older cohorts since they tend to be in a transitional stage (Highton and Wolfinger 2001) and contact lists for them are frequently inaccurate.Footnote 19 Consequently, it is more difficult to provide youth with election information. For example, in the 2000 federal campaign in Canada, one third of those born after 1970 indicated that they did not receive an information card compared with one in five born in the 1960s and one in ten born earlier (Gidengil et al. 2004, 112). Research in the US has also shown that those under 30 are also less likely to be home during door-to-door canvassing (Nickerson 2006, 49). Furthermore, youth are harder to reach using traditional communication technologies. More than half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the US do not have a land-line phone, rendering them unreachable by a traditional phone bank (Harvard University, 2007). This challenge is also experienced by consumer research firms, many of which have invested a substantial number of resources to locate the contact information of those under 30 and yet still struggle (Nickerson 2006, 57).

Moreover, the problem of contact is magnified when parties and candidates use voter identification to collect information on the specific preferences and backgrounds of individual supporters (Karp, Banducci and Bowler 2007). Parties and candidates collect these data so they can tailor subsequent messaging to try to maximize their appeal. As youth are more difficult to reach, candidates and parties are not as likely to have data to inform a tailored message.

Parties and candidates must distribute limited resources effectively all the time. As a result, they are more likely to attempt to mobilize voters who are easiest to contact and identify as a supporter, which tend to be older voters with permanent addresses (Nickerson 2006, 48).

However, there is some evidence that the real costs of overcoming barriers to youth voter contact may be exaggerated. In the US, mobilization experiments by CIRCLE have shown that the cost of mobilizing young people is much less than many leaders and consultants assume (Levine 2007, 2009). Clearly more research is required for the Canadian context to delineate the precise associated costs.

1.5.2 Challenge Two: Weak Party Identification

In recent decades, young voters in Canada, the US and the UK have become less likely to identify with a party (Cross 2004; Dalton and Wattenberg 2000; Martin 2012). In the US, a young person in 1964 was more than two and a half times likely to identify with a political party than a young person in 2010 (Martin 2012, 75). Furthermore, some research has found that partisan affiliation repels young people (Milner 2010; UK Electoral Commission 2002). In Canada, research has also shown that party support among youth tends to be unstable across different elections (see Kay and Perrella 2012).

This weakening partisan identification and instability has repercussions for political parties. In terms of engagement, parties are failing to attract the next generation of party members. As a result, parties lose a natural donation base and volunteer resource. The work of mobilization is also made more challenging as fewer youth identify as supporters. This is a problem because parties and candidates are inclined to mobilize their identified supporters, as this approach assumes the least amount of short-term risk. Dalton and Anderson (2011, 68) confirm that partisans are the most likely to be contacted by parties. This compounds the problems associated with voter identification noted above.

1.5.3 Challenge Three: Interests

There are at least three separate aspects to this challenge. First, youth may not be interested in politics. Second, when they are interested, their interests and priorities may be seen to be different from those of older age groups. Third, youth may evaluate leaders differently than their older counterparts.

Youth may be largely ignored in terms of engagement and mobilization strategies if parties accept the argument by some scholars that youth are simply tuned off and dropped out (Gidengil et al. 2003). Blais et al. (2004) note that the generation after 1970 is less interested in electoral politics, pays less attention and is less well informed than previous generations. Inglehart (1990) and Nevitte (1996) have observed a values shift among young voters and a rejection of hierarchical forms of participation (such as involvement with a political party). Yet this does not mean a rejection of politics per se.

Perhaps a larger challenge for engagement and mobilization could be a perception held by parties, candidates and young electors themselves that their interests rarely, if ever, converge. Survey research has generated conflicting conclusions. An analysis by Gidengil et al. (2005) using Canadian elections studies data from 2004 found a striking similarity in issue priorities among 18- to 29-year-olds compared with all other age groups, such as the top-ranked health care. The authors concluded that:

Issues that concern many young people are on the political agenda, and the political parties are taking positions on these issues. The problem seems to be that too often these messages are just not registering with a significant proportion of younger Canadians (Gidengil et al., 2005).

However, other survey research has found that those between the ages of 18 and 30 hold a different set of priorities than older cohorts (Turcotte 2007, 6). Granted, older and younger voters often share the same set of top priorities, notes Turcotte (2005), but they place different emphasis on issues. Youth also reported different spending priorities but again this is a matter of degree (2007, 11).

A third insight suggests that youth assess political candidates differently. Bastedo (2013) argues that older voters are more moved by the capacity of leaders to represent their interests and deliver tangible benefits, compared to younger voters who give greater consideration to the values and symbols a leader stands for. Though evaluations of representative capacity affect individuals' motivation to vote in both cases, recent leaders tend not to fulfill the representational style that appeals to older voters (Bastedo 2012).

Some form of a communication failure seems to be at work: either parties' messages are not reaching youth (Gidengil et al. 2005), at least not in a format that youth are receptive to, or parties are not marketing platforms that reflect the priorities of youth (Bastedo 2012; 2013; Turcotte 2005; 2007). Further research, which includes the perspective of party strategists, may help to unravel the real cause of the challenge.

In summary, evidence suggests that there are barriers that inhibit party outreach to youth. First, as a cohort, they are more difficult to contact due to high mobility and lack of land-line telephones. Second, partisan identification, though falling across the Canadian population, is weakest among youth. It is not clear whether parties, candidates and youth fail to perceive shared issue preferences or whether messages are being successfully marketed to youth audiences. Either messages are not penetrating youth audiences, or they are failing to resonate with them.  

Despite the barriers to youth outreach, the literature suggests that the youth cohort can be a source of support for an endeavouring political party. However, this is dependent on effective engagement between elections and mobilization during elections.


Footnote 2 The National Youth Survey was commissioned by Elections Canada to better understand the reasons why youth participate in the electoral process. It was conducted in May 2011 and included a sample of 1,372 youth aged 18 to 34 as well as additional subgroups.

Footnote 3 Many scholars highlight the fundamental role of political parties in modern democracy. See Chandler and Siaroff 1991; Cross 2004; International IDEA 2011; van Biezen 2004.

Footnote 4 Scholars note this is not an exhaustive list of the functions performed by all parties, but provides a "common denominator" that will assist in the comparison of parties cross nationally. See pp. 7–9 of Diamond and Gunther (2001) for a full explanation of each of the seven functions. For additional academic discussion of the particular role and functions of parties, see Norris (2011).

Footnote 5 The functions of parties should not be confused with types of political parties, which can be characterized by different objectives. This is beyond the scope of the review. For more on the classification of party types, see Diamond and Gunther (2001, 9–30).

Footnote 6 The specific terms used by Diamond and Gunther are "social integration" for engagement and "electoral mobilization" for mobilization. This review will define each term in full in the next section.

Footnote 7 In other words, scholars do not have access to parties' strategies or documents. As a result, it is possible that research is missing segments of their strategies and internal operations that are relevant to understanding their behaviour toward youth.

Footnote 8 Donating to a party is also a measure of engagement. However, to narrow the scope of this review, party financing literature was excluded. Notably, an analysis of Canada election studies data by Jansen, Thomas and Young (2012) observes that the vast majority of donations come from party members and, moreover, older affluent, politically engaged male members are the most likely to donate.

Footnote 9 This is the same age bracket used in the National Youth Survey in 2011.

Footnote 10 Age remains a reliable predictor of voting even as other characteristics, such as education or ethnicity, are controlled for in statistical models. Nonetheless, being under the age of 35 does not negate one's socio-economic status, region or literacy level. As will be outlined in the recommendations, a one-size-fits-all approach to youth mobilization is unlikely to be effective.

Footnote 11 Further research into youth's distinctions is warranted because, as later demonstrated, it is unfeasible to assume given the recent advances in mobilization tactics (specifically hyper-segmentation and micro-targeting) that parties will treat youth as a homogenous cohort.

Footnote 12 See Anderson and Stephenson (2010) and Gidengil et al. (2012) for additional participation models.

Footnote 13 This model does not exclude the fundamentals of the other theories of participation, such as personal resources and psychological motivations.

Footnote 14 While promising, Melton does note the continuous ambiguity within the field over what precisely causes a habit to form. He notes, "Unfortunately, this potential cannot be fully realized until the mechanism(s) through which habit formation occurs is identified, and although several mechanisms have been proposed, existing accounts of habitual voting have been unable to determine which are valid." Further, if efforts to boost participation succeed only in increasing the frequency of voting by intermittent voters, they can be considered but a limited success.

Footnote 15 For both periods in Howe's research, youth were limited to those aged 25 to 29 to ensure that all respondents would have been eligible to vote in all three elections in question. See Howe (2010, 15) for the list of reasons given by each type of voter for not voting.

Footnote 16 Howe compared respondents from the 1974 and 2004 Canadian election studies based on reported participation (which notably suffers from social desirability and faulty recall) in three elections: federal elections in 1974 and 2004, the previous federal elections in 1972 and 2000, and the most recent provincial election.

Footnote 17 The classification of intermittent voter was created by adding voting once and twice together using the 2004 data. Within this category of intermittent voters, one-time voters have become more common, again among youth. Where the ratio of two-time to one-time voters among those under 30 in 1974 was about 4 to 1, it is now almost 1 to 1. In addition, it is widely recognized that those who fail to participate in elections are also less likely to participate in surveys, which exacerbates the problem of under-representing of the actual number of habitual non-voters.

Footnote 18 Nickerson concludes that it is definitely possible to mobilize young voters and his study's probit results suggest that youth may be easier to mobilize than other low-voting groups in the US. However, when pooled together this finding does not approach statistical significance. At a baseline rate of turnout of 50% among young voters, the difference is only 3.3%. Nonetheless, it suggests that young registered voters are no more difficult to mobilize than older cohorts.

Footnote 19 These contact lists fundamentally shape parties' and candidates' outreach strategies. In Canada, the Register of Electors includes a person's name, sex, date of birth, and address. Every year the voter information in each electoral district is transmitted to the member of Parliament and to political parties. The list forms the foundation for communication purposes, such as recruiting party members and soliciting donations (Marland, Glassen and Lees-Marshment 2012, 32). Thus, in Canada the Register of Electors marks the first point at which many youth are excluded from the system.