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Youth Voter Group Betting On Digital Ads To Boost Turnout

Thomas Hawk via flickr creative commons
A political advocacy organization is targeting young voters with digital ads, while many campaigns focus TV ad spending on older voters.

A political advocacy group is banking on a digital ad campaign to get young Iowans to the polls. 

The left-leaning group NextGen Iowa is buying $112,000 worth of ads on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, directly targeted at 18 to 35 year olds. Nationwide, the bulk of political ad buys are still for television, though digital has a growing marketshare. The Cook Political Report projects TV ad spending for the 2018 elections could top $3 billion.

But as more young people cut the cord, NextGen state director Haley Hager says campaigns may have to find new ways to connect.

“Cable’s great. It’s a really effective way to get your message out there. But traditionally 18 to 35 year olds don’t watch a lot of cable. They are on their phones all the time," Hager said. "I’m guilty of that myself.”

Historically, young voters have had notoriously low turnout rates compared to older groups. Hager says many campaigns are letting those younger generations slip through the cracks.

“Political ads don’t usually target 18 year olds. We…turn out at half the rate, which means that traditionally, campaigns don’t talk to us," Hager said. "I think at NextGen we're changing that story."

According to a state analysis of U.S. Census data of registered voters, 18 to 24 year olds make up the smallest voting bloc in the state, and the least active. A review of elections from 1984 to 2016 by the U.S. Elections Project shows voters aged 60 and older are twice as likely to go to polls as 18 to 29 year olds. Those disparities are even starker during midterm years, when turnout is generally lower across all age brackets.

For many campaigns, spending ad dollars on likely voters is a safer bet. But Hager believes investing in ads for young audiences will translate into higher turnout.

"I don't think it's a gamble," Hager said. "I'm not skeptical about if they will show up. I know that these young people are going to. I think it's just a matter of how big is this going to be."

A recent analysis by the left-leaning blog Iowa Starting Line found Republican and Democrat candidates across the state are turning to digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, but that many of the ads are targeting older audiences, not younger.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter