Barring an early federal election call fraught with risk, our next visit to the polls is legislatively bookmarked for October 19, 2015. Rampant partisanship, already pervasive on Parliament Hill, can thus be expected to amplify during what amounts to a year-long battle-royal among political parties jockeying for an upper hand.
That upper hand being sought stems increasingly from a myriad of tactics hatched from within the ‘war room’: branding leaders, micro-targeting likely voters, fundraising, and attack ads comprise the essentials. As Susan Delacourt explains in her book, Shopping for Votes, this commercialization of politics devalues collective discourse and, as a result, parties become less participatory and more centralized. It is estimated that heading into 2015, just one to two percent of Canadians are active members of any party, many doing so simply to make a financial donation.
Here is the first mark against Millennials, a generational group defined roughly as those in their twenties: they have less money to give. Moreover, numerous studies in both Canada and the U.S. demonstrate that these younger Canadians are far less aligned with traditional party ideologies. Indeed, for many in this cohort, partisanship is an outright turn-off.
The U.S. experience is instructive. In 2008, inspired by then-Senator Obama’s promise to work across partisan lines and transform Washington through greater collegiality and civility, young people turned out in record numbers. By 2012, their enthusiasm had begun to soften and by 2014, Millennials represented just 13 percent of voters in midterm elections. Presumed candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent will vie to reverse this trend.
In Canada, the 2011 federal election saw fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters under the age of 25 partaking: by contrast, three-quarters of those 65 to 74 years of age did so. The dilemma for parties in 2015 will be whether to largely write-off younger voters as not worth the effort, or instead seek what has often become an elusive wave of youth enthusiasm to ignite turnout and potentially swing ridings in their favour.
Each party sees itself as advantageously positioned: the relative surge in Liberal support in recent by-elections and the hope of Trudeau-mania’s second coming; the NDP’s 2011 Orange Wave that ushered in record numbers of young MP’s; and even the Green Party’s hope that an ecological focus and a less controlling partisan apparatus can resonate most profoundly with newer voters.
The most complex demographic calculus may well be that of the Conservatives, traditionally most successful with older voters (i.e., those who show up). Yet after nearly a decade in power, any party requires renewal and it is often through new voices that such revitalization occurs. There is further danger in a youth exodus elsewhere as the Tory hallmark of economic stability rests uneasily with stubbornly persistent under-employment and rising debt among those born to Baby Boomers.
In a world of new media and online streaming, political parties may also struggle to reach younger voters. Costly and aggressive television ads are said to be viewed by many with distaste, but viewed they are, and often deemed effective as a result. This political truism, however, may be challenged by those who have ditched cable television for Netflix and YouTube.
Surely, social media provides an outlet to reach these digital natives, except that online individuals are much more empowered to tune away from what turns them off. Partisan videos online may reinforce media spin as television talk shows showcase the most egregious and offensive offerings of any given week, but they do little to widen voter interest and engagement.
Political parties with a genuine interest in galvanizing youth should take heed of a key finding from a 2014 survey by Samara Canada: only four percent of respondents thought that the most important job of parties should be competing in elections. And yet to any casual observer, partisan operatives and media pundits care about little else.
At some point, Millennials will begin to find their collective voice, demanding novel, more collaborative and less partisan forms of political governance both during and between elections. For now, their presence and influence in 2015 remain an open question.