How the Left uses the “cool” and “swagger” of music and pop-culture icons to capture the support of young, ininformed voters.
Works to register and mobilize voters aged 18-29 to support left-wing Democratic political candidates
Forms partnerships with music-industry and popular-culture icons who share the organization’s left-wing values, and who use their celebrity status to influence the opinions of young voters
Rock The Vote (RTV) was established in 1992 to “engage and build political power for young people in our country.” The organization’s target group is the 18-to-29-year-old age bracket, which, as of mid-2012, consisted of approximately 44 million people. Recognizing the potential influence of a demographic this large, RTV aims to “seiz[e] the power of the youth vote to create political and social change” of a left-wing nature. Toward that end, the organization has registered (as of 2012) more than 5 million voters under the age of 30.
To mobilize those registrants to take the next step and actually go to the polls on election day, RTV makes use of online social networks, online advertising, traditional media (radio, television, and print advertising), email outreach, text messaging, telephone calls, door-to-door canvassing, and college campus events. Further, the organization has carefully studied the relative efficacy of each of these approaches, noting, for example, that “a door knock can boost turnout by about 8 points for about $25 per additional vote”; “a live phone call increases turnout by 3-5 points for $20-26 per additional vote”; “a text message increases turnout by 3-4 points and can be very inexpensive”; and “multiple contacts from a campaign can increase turnout by 10-14 percentage points.”
By RTV’s calculus, current trends in young-voter opinion polls indicate that the so-called “millenial generation” will strongly support the Democratic Party for many years to come, thereby helping to shift American politics and values permanently leftward. For example, an RTV handbook titled Winning Young Voters notes that 47% of all voters younger than thirty identify themselves as Democrats, vs. just 28% who call themselves Republicans. The numbers are even more lopsided within specific demographics—e.g., Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 73% to 6% margin among young black voters; 51% to 21% among young Latinos; and 55% to 26% among young women.
RTV’s signature strategy for motivating young people to become politically engaged is to form partnerships with music-industry and popular-culture icons who share the organization’s left-wing values. These artists, in turn, promote RTV and its agendas at their public performances. Among those who have participated in RTV’s campaigns over the years are such notables as Alicia Keys, the Backstreet Boys, the Beastie Boys, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Clay Aiken, Janeane Garofalo, Josh Groban, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Pink, Pitbull, Sheryl Crow, and the Black Eyed Peas. Many celebrity spokespeople have also appeared in public service announcements in RTV’s behalf; among these are Ashanti, Miley Cyrus, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Janet Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, Ricky Martin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rosie Perez, the Ramones, and Justin Timberlake.
RTV was founded by Duke University graduate Heather Smith, who had previously worked in leadership positions with such groups as Young Voter Strategies (which later merged with RTV); Student PIRG’s New Voters Project (a massive campaign to register and mobilize young voters); and the Green Corps’ Field School for Environmental Organizing in Boston. Today, Smith serves as president of RTV.
RTV’s current national political director is Dartmouth College graduate Amanda Brown, who worked with “Obama for America” (now known as Organizing for America) in 2008. The following year, she served as assistant to the director in President Obama’s Office of Political Affairs. Later, Brown was named advisor for strategic planning at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she worked to advance energy secretary Steven Chu’s medium- and long-term agendas.
Another RTV official with noteworthy ties to Barack Obama is the group’s former Washington director, Hans Riemer. From 2007 until March 2008, Riemer served as the Obama presidential campaign’s national youth vote director. Previously (from 2001-03), he had been a senior policy analyst at the Institute for America’s Future.
On March 23, 2011, RTV held its first annual Democracy Day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. On Democracy Day, teachers in more than 1,200 classrooms nationwide taught a so-called “Democracy Class”—using videos (some of which featured appearances by RTV-affiliated artists), classroom discussion, and a mock election—to familiarize young people with the political process. Launched with help from the National Education Association, the Future Educators Association, YouthBuild, and the Youth Policy Institute, the Democracy Class program has become one of RTV’s most important ongoing projects. Toward the end of each class session, all eligible students are registered to vote, while underage and non-citizen students “pledge” that they, too, will register and vote as soon as they meet eligibility requirements.