The Power of the Gimmick – Youth Participation in Election Campaigns

Flash mobs. Facebook photo bombing. Viral videos. Morph suits.

Gimmicks.

To begin thinking about political behaviour, I’d like to start on a micro level – with the things that relate closest to me. It’s election time at Wilfrid Laurier. With campaigns kicking into high gear, student engagement seems higher this year than in years past.

In this week’s PO 240 class we discussed low youth participation in politics and the typical voter turnout in students’ union elections is no different – dismal numbers year after year. This year, however, I’ve been staggered by the amount of gimmicking that seems to be rampant – by one presidential candidate in particular.

On the first day of campaigning, social networking sites were aflutter with talk of flash mobs put on by this campaign team and my Facebook feed was inundated by the spread of his humourous campaign videos. This sudden burst of excitement seemed to cause students to get on board with the campaign – and quickly. Soon, people’s display photos changed to the campaign poster and the campaign team could boast a brilliant viral marketing success.

Like many, I too was intrigued by the sudden influx of interest dominating my Facebook page. I watched a video and sought out the campaign website to check out the candidate’s platform. To my disappointment, the candidate’s website wasn’t even up yet and therefore I could not get any information on the candidate’s position. This leads me to conclude that my fellow students got on board with this candidate with little to no knowledge of what he stood for or if he would represent their issues in any capacity.

As the campaign season wears on, I can’t say my initial impressions have changed. Having had the opportunity to now read his platform, it isn’t exceptionally groundbreaking. He continues to release videos that instead of highlighting his platform, only seek to entertain. Yet, students continue to get on board.

I think this highlights some interesting points when considering youth participation in politics. I think there are lessons here that can be transferred to other, more high profile election campaigns.
1. Students need to feel included – as though they truly have a stake in the outcome. In the case of this particular campaign, a wide variety of students were recruited to participate in flash mobs which created the impression that they were an integral element of the campaign and helped foster a vested interest in the outcome.
2. Mechanisms to reach youth voters need to be creative and innovative – It has been proven time and again that the usual tactics utilized by those vying for office do not appeal to or generate an interest in youth voters. Candidates must engage youth in the spaces where they spend most of their time in ways that are unique to this part of the electorate.
3. Candidates need to be personable and charismatic – Youth responded overwhelmingly to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign because he was dynamic and took an explicit interest in engaging them.

A final lesson that I think can be taken from these WLUSU elections is that once you secure the youth vote, they will be passionate and committed supporters. If a candidate can overcome the challenges of an apathetic demographic, they will emerge with a contingent of loyal supporters to help a message go viral.

The caveat, of course, to all of this is that until next week, we have no idea how the chips will fall and which WLUSU presidential candidate will be named the students’ union president for 2011/2012. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see just how effective this viral campaign will be at turning excitement into results at the voting booth.

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