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

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2.0 Engagement and Mobilization Strategies

This section turns attention to how outreach strategies work in practice for parties, according to academic research. Engagement is examined first, followed by mobilization.Footnote 20

2.1 Engagement

Although it is common to equate political participation with voting, engaging voters does not stop when the polls close. This review organizes parties' youth engagement along three streams: (1) party membership, (2) non-member engagement and (3) policy development. It is difficult to measure the benefits of engagement strategies since the effects are not as immediate or precise as mobilization techniques (i.e. voting). However, scholars note several benefits for parties with robust levels of these three indicators.

In terms of party membership, youth members can benefit parties in a number of ways. First, parties gain legitimacy from their member base (Cross, Young and Carty 2006). Second, youth are a source of abundant volunteer labour, if parties successfully cultivate a deep sense of loyalty to the candidate and party (Carlin 2011, 98). Finally, having socialized young members in partisan politics and party structures, youth ensure longer-term party renewal. Nonetheless, youth organizations within parties – how they are resourced, administered and relate to the "mother-party" – have rarely been studied systematically (Bruter and Harrison 2009).Footnote 21

Generally, youth are not joining parties in the same numbers as they once did. As party memberships decline, Dalton and Wattenberg (2000) note that parties may struggle to fulfill their functions without a robust and active membership. Recognizing this reality, parties' engagement of non-members grows increasingly important to their relevance and success.

Policy development provides a vehicle for members (and sometimes non-members) to put forward issues and ideas. This can be an important process to ensure that youth feel they have a voice and influence.Footnote 22 Cross et al. (2006) argue a robust policy foundation is one approach to encourage party membership and help parties fulfill their roles in public life.Footnote 23 Further, Cross (2004) finds that parties without an ongoing capacity for policy development find it far more difficult to engage their members in policy-related activities while in government.

The third section applies this engagement framework to selected case studies.

2.2 Mobilization: Getting Out the Vote

Several scholars have demonstrated that party, candidate or issue organization contact with voters improves turnout (Blydenburgh 1971; Cain and McCue 1985; Calderia et al. 1990; Crotty 1971; Eldersveld 1956; Gosnell 1927; Huckfeld and Sprague 1992; Katz and Eldersveld 1961; Kramer 1970; Lupfer and Price 1972; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). This research also suggests that many factors shape the effectiveness of GOTV efforts, including messaging content, delivery, timing and the targeted recipient (Nickerson 2006). While experimental research has helped to illuminate precisely how these factors interact, the precise psychological mechanism underpinning the success of electoral mobilization is not clear. Green and Gerber (2008) believe social pressure is responsible, while Bennion (2005) claims mobilization efforts reawaken and remind voters of their sense of duty.

Mobilization strategies, or GOTV efforts, take various forms.Footnote 24 The strategies are reviewed here in order of their effectiveness: face-to-face, phone, text messaging, direct mail and the Internet. Few studies focus specifically on the youth cohort, so this review summarizes general findings first.

Door-to-door canvassing has proven to be the most effective mobilization method (Eldersveld 1956; Green and Gerber 2000). Analysts have found an increase in turnout between 7% and 10% in response to face-to-face contact (Eldersveld 1956; Green and Gerber 2000; Miller, Bositis and Baer 1981). The fact that the particular message delivered door-to-door is relatively unimportant in most voters' response confirms the findings by Gerber and Green (2000) as well as by Rosenstone and Hansen (1993). In other words, the actual presence of a person urging a citizen to vote is more important than the message (Bennion 2005, 136).

Some scholars suggest not all phone calls are alike. Phone calls by volunteers have the biggest impact on turnout, while calls by paid call centre workers demonstrate a weaker, yet still positive, effect. Nickerson (2006) argues that the quality of the phone calls determines effectiveness rather than the presence or absence of payroll. He also finds that the content of the message of the phone call is not as important as the timing and tone.Footnote 25 In contrast, automated telephone banks are found to have no significant effect on turnout.

Parties have successfully used text message reminders on election day to increase turnout. In Dale and Strauss' (2007) experiment, text message reminders increased turnout by 3.1 percentage points. Yet beyond reminders, only a few campaigns have developed ongoing communication strategies with voters via mobile phones.

The experimental literature on partisan direct mail finds a weakly positive effect on turnout. It appears that partisan mail has its greatest mobilization effects when sent to strong partisan supporters, but at best, experimental mail campaigns have generated a 1.9 percentage point increase in turnout, and often the estimated effects are zero (Gerber, Green and Green 2003). Cardy (2005) finds that neither partisan direct mail nor partisan phone calls, used independently or together, garner significant effects.

Using the Internet for mobilization is a comparatively recent development, but given its potential, Martin (2012) finds that political parties are not using web-based mobilization as effectively as they could. While direct human contact is demonstrated to be most effective, the Internet is a promising channel for mobilizing young people at a cost that is likely to be deemed more affordable (Martin 2012, 127). Most recently, Bond et al. (2012) demonstrated that the online social network, Facebook, mobilized young voters. The scholars estimate that the experiment, which included informational and social messages, caused an extra 340,000 people to vote.Footnote 26 However, not all scholars ascribe to the Internet's potential outreach capacity. In particular, Oates and Gibson (2006, 3) are pessimistic about the Internet's ability to reach the civically disengaged.

In terms of the delivery of mobilization methods, Niven (2002) finds the effects of contact are dependent on timing, as more distant efforts to mobilize had a much weaker effect on turnout. The combination of distant contact aimed at an infrequent voter was especially ineffective in improving turnout. In contrast, efforts focused near election day were much more successful. For intermittent voters, the gap between early and late contact differs by a factor of seven (Niven 2002, 315).

Most of the measurable mobilization effects identified above apply to the general electorate rather than youth specifically. Whether such methods generate identical, greater or lesser effects pertaining to youth warrants further study. Bennion (2005) found that contact with young voters (18 to 24) boosts their probability of voting by 18.1 percentage points, and that those under 30 are particularly susceptible to the civic duty message when delivered by non-partisan youth. She argues young people may be more likely to be persuaded by their peers telling them that it is their duty to vote than by partisan campaigns or messages encouraging them to select a particular candidate.Footnote 27

Wattenberg (2002) offers a contrasting perspective to the implicit assumption in much mobilization research that more participation is beneficial. He questions the desirability of mobilizing tactics if they are used to get citizens with low interest and knowledge to the polls (2002, 165). He suggests such uninformed citizens will treat voting with the same carelessness with which they pick lottery numbers. This viewpoint reflects the broader normative tension in the literature, which is worth highlighting in this review, although it is not the primary focus.


Footnote 20 See Appendix 1 for a table that provides an overview of the techniques and reported effectiveness on rates of voter turnout.

Footnote 21 Notable exceptions to this are Cross and Young's (2002) study of party members and Bruter and Harrison's 2009 work, which examines young party members in Europe.

Footnote 22 Many studies have noted that youth turn away from parties to interest groups because they feel interest groups offer the greatest opportunity for change.

Footnote 23 There are arguments against the development of strong policy foundations among parties. First, some feel it is at odds with their ability to represent the entire electorate once elected. Second, allotting funds to policy development is not seen as a priority in terms of resource allocation.

Footnote 24 There are two ways of assessing effectiveness of party contact: the total number of voters contacted and the effect of this contact on actual voting. If they contact only those who usually vote, then their efforts may not prove terribly effective in enlarging the pool of voters (Karp, Banducci and Bowler 2007, 103).

Footnote 25 In terms of the cost per additional vote for each treatment, Nickerson finds that even with the higher cost ($1.50/call) of the national professional phone bank at $29/additional vote, professional calls are cost-competitive with door-to-door canvassing ($31) and leafleting ($32). The local phone banks ($1/call) generate one additional vote for every $19. The volunteer calls boosted turnout by one additional vote for every $150 and were therefore inefficient relative to many other GOTV methods.

Footnote 26 This experiment did not involve a political party.

Footnote 27 While this finding was not statistically significant, it is suggestive. Bennion hypothesizes that having a peer mobilize them may overcome youth's hesitations regarding whether one vote can make a difference, and their scepticisms of politicians and political parties.