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Young Voters Figure Large in Alison Lundergan Grimes’ Game Plan

Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes recently spoke to members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at their District 4 progress meeting held at the Galt House.
Alix Mattingly/WFPL News
Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes recently spoke to members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at their District 4 progress meeting held at the Galt House.
Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes recently spoke to members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at their District 4 progress meeting held at the Galt House.
Credit Alix Mattingly/WFPL News
Alison Lundergan Grimes

Kentucky’s youngest voters have enough pull to decide the outcome in this year’s U.S. Senate race, according to a Tufts University report.

That fact is pivotal for Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, who many believe needs a strategy shakeup in order to defeat Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell this fall.

In 2008, McConnell won re-election by about 106,000 votes. This year’s contest could be much closer.

An analysis provided by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, shows voters ages 18-29 cast about 352,000 ballots in the last mid-term election.

Surveys have shown McConnell widening his lead in recent months, but Grimes is still within range and that puts an emphasis on every Democratic voting bloc—including younger voters.

“There are plenty of young people in Kentucky to make a difference,” said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, which conducted the analysis. “There are 670,000 young citizens. That would be way more than the margin of victory for either candidate.”

The latest Bluegrass Poll put Grimes ahead of McConnell among those voters by an 8-point margin. Kentuckians ages 18-34 also give the senator some of his worst approval ratings, with a net favorability of -14 points.

Grimes’ team hopes to energize that base by engaging them on certain policy prescriptions, such as college affordability and student loan debt. Making direct appeals to the state’s young people to turnout is a key part of Grimes’ pathway to victory.

“We are utilizing our campaign’s strong grassroots infrastructure to reach out to young people across Kentucky to engage with them about the important choice in this election,” said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton told WFPL.

The Grimes campaign plans to make a big push on campuses across the state, with campus phone banks and canvassing to register and turnout young voters.

Those include building up a network of campus organizers that are expected to operate on nearly every campus.

Asked about outreach to younger voters, the McConnell campaign offered few details on how they plan to energize those voters. Rather, McConnell’s team said Kentuckians entering the job market oppose the Democratic agenda.

“Young Kentuckians entering the workforce are amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of Senator McConnell because they know he is the only candidate who is working to reverse the Obama economic agenda and help foster economic growth and job creation for their future,” campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a statement to WFPL.

Moore emphasized how “scores of young people across the (state)” are backing the senator.

“They are the catalyst and energy behind the grassroots movement to re-elect Senator McConnell because they understand that their economic future is falling further into debt without the prospect for recovery, unless action is taken immediately to go in a different direction from the Obama-Grimes status quo,” she said.

Young Voters Drop Off

Younger voters tend to favor Democrats, but they are not considered the most reliable demographic in non-presidential election years.

During the 2012 presidential race, CIRCLE’s analysis found that a solid 43.4 percent of Kentucky registered voters age 18-29 came out to the polls. Just two years prior during the state’s last Senate race, the demographic's turnout was an anemic 22.9 percent.

“It leads to this strange phenomenon that we really have two different electorates, one every four years and the other every next two years,” said Levine. “A lot more people vote in presidential elections, and the kind of people who drop out of the electorate tend to be among other things, younger, so it’s an entirely different group.”

Centre College students Kit Thomas, 21, and Caroline Snell, 21, run a politics blog following the Senate race.

The pair told WFPL it is unclear how engaged their peers are about the Senate election. If those voters do show up, Grimes is likely to be the chief beneficiary of any significant turnout, Snell and Thomas said.

Thomas said Grimes received high marks among younger voters when shejoined forces with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren in support of legislation tackling student loan debt.

“That really spoke to me,” said Thomas, who a Democrat. “I think it is a pertinent issue, especially attending an expensive higher education institution. She is resonating with people our age.”

Grimes outlined a plan in June that mirrors much of Warren’s measure, such as giving students the same loan rates as the federal government gives Wall Street banks.

Snell is a Republican who intends to vote for McConnell this year. She said she opposes how the Warren plan would be paid for, but admits Grimes is doing better at appealing to voters on that issue.

“Grimes has used the ‘Degrees, Not Debt’ slogan continuously throughout her entire campaign and I think that resonates very well with younger voters,” said Snell. “She has repeatedly pointed out even (recently) that McConnell once again blocked legislation that would help student loan debt. On the surface when you put that on a poster that sounds great, or in an attack ad that resonates very well with younger voters.”

Levine points out younger Kentuckians are not necessarily anchored to one issue, and their makeup is significantly different when compared to national statistics.

About 28 percent of younger voters in the state have children of their own compared to 19 percent nationally, according to CIRCLE.

That puts equal weight on issues such as pre-K funding as much as higher education debt relief, which the Grimes campaign hopes to leverage with their position on the minimum wage and equal pay for women.

“Young people are not like senior citizens in that they’re not all exposed to one or two big policy issues, Levine said.

"It’s a very, very diverse group, but I do think both candidates can appeal to them and reach out to them, and we’ve seen that happen over and over again.”

Copyright 2014 89.3 WFPL News Louisville

Phillip M. Bailey became WFPL's political editor in 2011, covering city, state and regional campaigns and elected officials. He also covers Metro Government, including the mayor's office and Metro Council. Before coming to WFPL, Phillip worked for three years as a staff writer at LEO Weekly and was a fellow at the Academy of Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.