Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Which Chicago Mayoral Candidate Will Get the Youth Vote?

For young voters, the February 22nd mayoral primary will be the first time they’ll encounter a ballot without the name Richard M. Daley on it. One of the liveliest efforts to push this group to the polls was started last September by a 25-year-old on the day that Daley announced he wasn’t running for another term…

For young voters, the February 22nd mayoral primary will be the first time they’ll encounter a ballot without the name Richard M. Daley on it. One of the liveliest efforts to push this group to the polls was started last September by a 25-year-old on the day that Daley announced he wasn’t running for another term. UIC graduate Harish Patel named his group Chicago AD (i.e., After Daley). He had a Facebook page up two days later.

In 2008, the youth vote (between ages 18-29) made a big difference for Barack Obama, with turnout at 52 percent; in the 2010 midterms, turnout sunk to 20.4 percent.

After spending some time talking to Patel and others who are involved in trying to get young voters to the polls, I realize that nobody knows how this demographic will vote—the youngest of the candidates is Rahm Emanuel at 51; the oldest is Carol Moseley Braun at 63—or whether many of its members will go to the polls at all.

From following this election closely, it seems to me that the candidates are focused on older demographics: families with children, union members, senior citizens.

A national nonpartisan group called Rock the Vote—with an assist from local groups like Patel’s and Chicago Votes—is trying to bring the Millennial Generation into the mix. One vehicle is a party at Rockit Bar & Grill on Hubbard Street on February 17th after the ABC7 mayoral debate. All the mayoral candidates have been invited—as have candidates for alderman—but as of post time, it’s not clear who will show.

“I’m not supporting any one candidate,” Patel told me, but he has the nicest things to say about Miguel del Valle, 59, who not only attends every forum anyone stages, but even showed up at a party for 20-somethings in Pilsen.

Asked about a Richard Day Research poll of 600 likely Chicago voters released on Tuesday, Patel declared the results useless. Patel argues that if this poll is consistent with most he has seen there were likely too few young people in the mix and too few calls made to cell phones. (Pollster Richard Day told me that 12 percent of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 29, and 12 percent were reached on cell phones.)

The poll seemed to catch everyone’s attention, mainly because Emanuel did so well, capturing 54 percent. If that number holds on primary election day, Emanuel will have the votes he needs to avoid the April 5 runoff. In second place, but way behind Rahm was Gery Chico at 14 percent, followed by Miguel del Valle at eight percent and Carol Moseley Braun at six percent.

Day told me that he was surprised by the huge lead Emanuel captured; in addition to a majority among white voters (57 percent), Emanual won support from a majority of African-American voters (53 percent) and close to a majority of Hispanics (47 percent). (Day broke down the people polled as 45 percent African-American, 39 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic.)

But Patel argued that Emanuel doesn’t deserve the votes of his generation, citing the candidate’s consistent absence at candidate forums. “He doesn’t have an interest in talking to young people.”

According to Thomas Bates, Rock the Vote’s vice president of civic engagement, the Washington-based organization asked all the mayoral candidates to complete a questionnaire on issues important to young voters. Bates said Miguel del Valle, Patricia Watkins, and Doc Walls responded. Emanuel, Moseley Braun, and Chico did not. (Chico has since responded.)

To Patel, the young voters’ time has come. Asked about the endorsement of Emanuel by the Sun-Times and the Tribune, Patel says, ”I don’t think young people care. We don’t trust the endorsement process. I get all my news online. It’s a Facebook, Twitter, social media world.” The poll showing Emanuel with such a formidable lead doesn’t reflect that, Patel adds, and he offers advice to pollsters: “If [they] want real data on the youth vote, they should utilize Facebook, SMS and cell phones—not landlines. The method for polling must be updated with the times.”

In line with Rock the Vote’s nonpartisan stance, Maegan Carberry, the group’s communications director, studiously avoids showing a preference for one candidate over another. “There’s a myth in field organizing that it’s difficult to identify young voters and target them with messages, and that’s just not true anymore. In the social networking, mobile generation, there are many techniques you can use.”

So will it make a difference to the outcome if a candidate decides to skip the Rockit event on February 17th? “I think that young people want to be taken seriously as a voting bloc,” says Rock the Vote’s Bates. “There are people that want to be engaged, want to be part of the process, so it’s nice to have that hand extended.”

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