Senate campaigns rush to engage young Georgia voters before runoffs

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff's efforts to attract young voters have included holding campaign rallies in Athens and near Kennesaw State University, and he’s also made appeals on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff's efforts to attract young voters have included holding campaign rallies in Athens and near Kennesaw State University, and he’s also made appeals on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

An estimated 23,000 young Georgians have become eligible to vote since Nov. 3

Jon Ossoff got straight to the point Thursday as he stepped to the podium at a socially distanced campaign rally in Kennesaw with young voters.

“I’ve been through (it) with my team a thousand ways,” the Democrat told the 100 or so supporters gathered in a church parking lot. “The bottom line is that victory in Georgia comes down to young people.”

Ossoff’s campaign and that of his counterpart Raphael Warnock are sparing no expense as they look to lure millennial and Generation Z voters to the polls in their bids to unseat Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on Jan. 5.

A surge in youth turnout is what helped push Ossoff and Warnock’s Senate contests into runoffs last month, as well as secure Georgia’s 16 electoral votes for former Vice President Joe Biden. But getting young people to return to the polls is another matter.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff taps elbows with Kennesaw State University student Samantha Best following a rally Thursday in the parking lot of Grace Community Christian Church in Kennesaw. “The bottom line is that victory in Georgia comes down to young people,” Ossoff said at the rally. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff taps elbows with Kennesaw State University student Samantha Best following a rally Thursday in the parking lot of Grace Community Christian Church in Kennesaw. “The bottom line is that victory in Georgia comes down to young people,” Ossoff said at the rally. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Historically, young voters are among the least likely to turn out for elections, especially when there is no presidential contest at the top of the ticket. As newer voters, they’re often less aware of rules and deadlines. And the pandemic — which has upended working, living and educational arrangements for many young people — is creating even more headaches for campaigns seeking to juice turnout.

“I lose sleep at night thinking about all the college students who might forget that they will not be on campus and may not be near their school,” said Kaycee Brock, a Warnock campaign staffer who focuses on engaging students at the state’s historically black colleges and universities.

At the Ossoff rally, Brock urged college students to tell their friends to request absentee ballots and to encourage any high schoolers who have turned 18 since Election Day to register to vote before Monday’s deadline.

Both political parties have devoted teams of staff and volunteers to registering new voters, and Democrats in particular have homed in on the estimated 23,000 young Georgians who have turned 18 since Nov. 3.

Georgia has seen 23,000 of its residents turn 18 since the Nov. 3 election, and Democrats are homing in on those potentially new voters ahead of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Georgia has seen 23,000 of its residents turn 18 since the Nov. 3 election, and Democrats are homing in on those potentially new voters ahead of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In addition to Brock, Warnock’s campaign has hired several staff members focused on young voter outreach, and the Democrat is bankrolling ads on Hulu, Pandora and radio stations popular with younger audiences. The campaign says it’s targeting more than 400,000 Georgia college students on campus, digitally and in print.

Ossoff has held campaign rallies in Athens and near Kennesaw State University, and he’s tried reaching out to Georgia’s youngest voters on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat.

A recent report from Tufts University shows why the Democrats are investing so much in those efforts.

“The data is clear: young voters in Georgia, particularly youth of color (who make up more than half of the voting-eligible youth population in the state) and voters under the age of 25 seem to have made this once-solid-red state into a cliffhanger swing state in the 2020 presidential election,” according to the University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Young voters made up 20% of Georgia’s electorate last month, according to Tufts’ estimate, among the highest in the country and 3 percentage points higher than the national average.

“Every youth generation is portrayed as if they’re apathetic. We know that’s very much not true,” Carolyn DeWitt, president of the youth-focused Rock the Vote, said in a recent interview. “Not only was it inspiring to see them turn out, but for them to overcome the unique challenges of being a new voter during a pandemic where young people had to familiarize themselves with flexible voting options, complex processes and deadlines about requesting absentee ballots and early voting.”

Younger voters tended to favor Democrats in the November election, but there was a wide split between young Black people and their white counterparts.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Younger voters tended to favor Democrats in the November election, but there was a wide split between young Black people and their white counterparts. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Those young voters skewed heavily Democratic, with 58% of Georgians under 30 backing Biden over President Donald Trump, Tufts estimates. But much like it is with older Georgians, race was a major dividing line. Ninety percent of young Black voters cast their ballots for Biden, compared with only 34% of their white counterparts.

Many young Republicans in Georgia have opted to get involved in the runoffs, eager to prove that not all young voters are Democrats.

The Emory College Republicans are working to raise $30,000 for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on protecting the GOP majority in the Senate.

“That’s probably the most important thing that we’ll ever do as a club,” said chapter President Jasmine Jaffe, a junior from Vero Beach, Florida, majoring in political science and philosophy.

The Perdue and Loeffler campaigns did not respond to requests seeking details about their efforts to attract young people. Abigail Sigler, a spokeswoman for the Georgia GOP, said the election “presents a clear choice between socialism and freedom, and if young adults want the opportunity to live their American dream, they must support” Loeffler and Perdue.

Republicans are also reaching out to young voters to support the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. For example, the Emory College Republicans are working to raise $30,000 for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on protecting the GOP majority in the Senate. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Republicans are also reaching out to young voters to support the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. For example, the Emory College Republicans are working to raise $30,000 for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on protecting the GOP majority in the Senate. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

One young Perdue supporter is William Gonzalez, a senior at Gainesville High School who will vote for the first time in the January runoffs. Gonzalez, who turned 18 on Nov. 21, said the coronavirus and the economy are top concerns.

Gonzalez’s father, the family’s main breadwinner, is a construction worker. During the initial shutdown in March, he spent more than a week without work. Gonzalez said he’s backing Perdue in order to avoid another shutdown. But the race between Warnock and Loeffler is more complicated. He doesn’t like that Warnock has no political experience, and that Loeffler was initially appointed to her position.

“I’m just trying to weigh their policies,” Gonzalez said.

Spencer Payne, a senior at Lakeside High School, turned 18 just two days after the general election. Even though he wasn’t eligible to vote, he volunteered for the Democratic Party of Georgia’s voter protection hotline, helping others register and answering questions about voting by mail. Now, Payne gets to cast his own ballot for the first time in the runoffs.

“Before, I could support a candidate, but without a vote behind it. To me, it’s just not as powerful,” Payne said. “To be able to participate in democracy for the first time is very satisfying.”

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