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

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4.0 Points of Consideration

4.1 Revisiting the Challenges

This section revisits the three main challenges to effective youth outreach outlined earlier in the literature review. In light of the insights from the case studies, the review highlights strategies used in other jurisdictions to overcome the challenges.

The first challenge is that youth are harder to contact than their older counterparts. This makes voter identification, an essential task for effective outreach, more difficult. However, it is unlikely that the two reasons why identification is made more difficult will change: youth's mobility patterns and lack of land-line phones. As such, parties that seek to reach youth have had to devise innovative solutions. In the US, the Democratic Party, in particular, has invested both in online platforms like MyBo that encourage supporters to share information about themselves (e.g. name, e-mail, mobile phone, location, interests).

Concurrently, US parties have also invested in sophisticated data management systems that compile data from a variety of sources. These combined strategies can enable youth outreach. In Canada, the Conservative Party is arguably the most advanced in its data collection, though the Liberal Party has also invested in a data program (Marland 2012). The literature reveals little about the other political parties or to what extent youth are present in these databases.Footnote 51

The second challenge is youth's weak partisan attachments, which diminish parties' membership base and decrease parties' propensity to reach out to youth. This is a common challenge across many advanced democracies, and there is no simple solution to the erosion of partisan attachments.

With the growing aversion to formal party membership, particularly for youth, UK parties seem to be redefining their relationship with supporters by moving toward a more networked model during campaign periods that facilitates the involvement of citizens who do not desire membership (Gibson 2013). Parties, in order to maximize their investments in digital tools, are loosening control over previously highly centralized campaign tasks – and encouraging supporters (and members) to use them. Such a new form of party affiliation – more similar to the floating support associated with social movements – may reduce parties' need for formal membership. However, it is not yet clear how these campaign experiences will have a deeper organizational impact on the party structure beyond elections (Gibson 2013). In Canada, the recent creation of the "supporter" categoryFootnote 52 by the Liberal Party suggests some willingness to experiment with a new model.

The final challenge is the (mis)perception that youth are not interested in politics whatsoever, and if they are, that their interests and evaluations diverge from the larger electorate. The case studies do not illuminate a solution to this puzzle. There is no common approach to how youth should be treated by parties: Are they a cohort with distinct issue preferences that require expression in the party's policy and platform development? Does an institutionalized youth voice in the party structure improve a sense of effectiveness among youth – as members and non-members? Limited research, particularly comparative work, also makes it difficult to assess these approaches.

4.2 Benefits of Youth Outreach

Despite the challenges to youth outreach faced by political parties, the literature and case studies highlighted (albeit sometimes implicitly) the benefits for political parties.

First, there can be long-term electoral advantages for parties that effectively reach out to youth. Without strong partisan identities, youth votes are potentially winnable. This creates room for parties to think strategically about how to mobilize youth, as the Democratic Party has demonstrated. Another advantage to recruiting youth – either full party members or supporters – is that they possibly offer a pool of low-cost (often free) labour to perform outreach tasks. Such opportunities also offer an initial step toward cultivating a sense of loyalty to the party or candidate among a new generation of supporters.

Second, parties risk long-term decline as their membership ages and fails to be replaced with younger members. Although it is not likely parties will cease to exist without members (Young and Cross 2007), their attachments to the broader society are important since they are the vehicles through which governments are formed. Moreover, among their many functions, parties should provide a meaningful way for citizens, including youth, to participate in politics. The successful mobilization and engagement of youth is thus tied to both the legitimacy of parties and the democratic system in which they operate.

4.3 Notable Practices from Case Studies

It is challenging to distinguish a set of "best" practices for how candidates and parties reach out to youth. The fact that political parties tend to operate opaquely makes a comprehensive study of their strategies and decisions more difficult for scholars. Additionally, technologies used by parties, often in campaigns, are evolving quickly while the research process generally unfolds more slowly. Without clear evidence of "best" practices, this review draws attention to notable practices based on the case study material.


This review considered three aspects of parties' youth engagement: party membership, non-member engagement and policy development.

Finland presents a leading example of party membership. Every major party maintains a youth wing, most of which appear to have, at least to some extent, an influential voice within the mother party. Furthermore, several of Finland's youth chapters work with each other and other community partners to advance youth issues in concurrence. As a result, this appears to open up parties to a dialogue with non-members (although the full effects were not documented). However, it is unclear what effect this might have on youth turnout at the national level as no estimates are available.

In terms of non-member engagement, the US is also an important case. As described in depth in the case study section, youth outreach includes social events which attract an audience beyond core party supporters. The Democratic Party has invested in online platforms that build interactive and ongoing dialogue among interested youth. However, as alluded to earlier, this non-member engagement could also be considered a type of sustained mobilization given the near continual campaign cycle in the US.


Mobilization strategies are widely used but not always aimed specifically at youth. The US, and in particular the Democratic Party, are innovators in terms of mobilization. Other countries, including Canada (Lees-Marshment 2012, 94) and the UK (Gibson 2013, 6), are watching closely in an effort to adapt US mobilization strategies to their own political and electoral context.

The willingness of the Democratic campaign to surrender some control over campaign tasks to supporters generated a new pool of volunteers who worked to mobilize their own social networks online and offline. One such example is the eCaptains used during the 2008 election.Footnote 53

4.4 Recommended Future Research

This literature review points toward a number of research questions that warrant further investigation in Canada.


  • Engagement of youth between elections is a neglected area of research. Canadian literature lacks a clear understanding of the full range of activities candidates and political parties undertake at the federal political level to involve youth (both members and non-members). An audit of this sort that pays particular attention to youth wings and campus chapters, as well as local EDAs, would be a starting point. This could take the shape of in-depth interviews with local party leaders, as Shea (2004) completed in the US. Such a step is necessary before determining what works most effectively among parties.
  • Current comparative literature suggests vast differences in how parties approach policy development. A more systematic comparative study of the role for youth (and their contribution) in these processes would also be of value.


  • Currently, the vast majority of mobilization experiments occur in the US. The precise effectiveness and costs associated with each strategy for Canadian youth is unclear. Experiments offer the most accurate assessment of mobilization strategies, and should be carried out in the Canadian context. The inability to validate individual-level voter turnout in Canada presents the largest challenge to this task.

Additional areas:

  • As a complement to this review, it would be beneficial to consider how organizations other than parties, such as non-profit groups that work with youth, facilitate political engagement and mobilization among youth. These organizations may offer lessons adaptable to parties.

Footnote 51 The Conservatives use CIMS (Constituency Information Management System); Liberals use LiberalList. Marland (2012) describes these databases as integrating the electronic list of electors provided by Elections Canada, socio-demographic data from Statistics Canada, and information that party canvassers and constituency offices input. See p. 69.

Footnote 52 "Supporters" could sign up via the Liberal Party of Canada website or websites of the party leadership candidates, and without paying a membership due, will be able to cast a ballot in the selection of the next party leader in spring 2013.

Footnote 53 Although precisely how many youth filled the ranks of eCaptains is not clear.