The Justin Trudeau Show: a hit with youth, but will they vote?
Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau speaks at a Get Out the Vote rally in Toronto on Tuesday, April 9, 2013. (Michelle Siu / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Wednesday, April 10, 2013 12:27PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 10, 2013 4:22PM EDT
There’s a message on Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership campaign website aimed solely at “young Canadians.”
“There are a lot of people who think that students don’t care about the world beyond their textbooks. And I know that’s not true. I know it because I’ve met you, I’ve talked with you, we’ve tweeted back and forth and, most importantly, I’ve listened to what you have to say.”
The former schoolteacher has made appealing to young voters a hallmark of his campaign to be the next federal Liberal leader and, if all goes as the party hopes, perhaps the next prime minister after the 2015 election.
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But while the front-runner’s sizable lead, high profile and famous last name have made him a hit with the under-30 crowd, it’s unclear whether that wide-eyed support will translate into votes.
When asked about re-engaging young voters during a recent question-and-answer session before a business crowd at the Empire Club of Canada, Trudeau spoke about his commitment to drawing them back to mainstream politics.
“There is a generation of young people who are more informed, more aware, more conscious of what’s going on around big issues and the world around them than any previous generation,” Trudeau told the crowd. Their aversion to politics reflects their frustration with feeling excluded from government decision-making, he said.
Trudeau believes Canadians of all ages are also getting turned off by the bitter partisanship, attacks ads and focus on gaining and winning power that have become the mainstays of the political process.
Despite that, he says 10,000 mostly young voters across Canada have been actively volunteering with his leadership campaign.
He has reason to be optimistic about his youth support, if the cheering throngs of supporters who turned up to last weekend’s Liberal leadership showcase are any indication.
While the event was deemed as an opportunity for the six remaining candidates to appeal to party members, it was largely the Justin Trudeau show. He had the most supporters on hand, banging thundersticks, ringing bells and chanting his name before, during and after his speech.
Party member Melinda Phuong of Markham, Ont., was among many supporters clad in gear emblazoned with Trudeau’s name. The 20-year-old said Trudeau’s outreach on issues important to young voters, particularly youth unemployment, is part of his appeal.
The other part, echoed by other young supporters, is his famous father’s legacy.
“I think (Pierre Trudeau) is the most important prime minister in the entire history of Canada, and I really respect him,” Phuong, a political science student, said. “And I know Justin’s not the same as his father, he’s different. But I feel that a lot of his values intermingle with what his father’s values were, and they are things I also believe in.”
Despite the robust show of support at Saturday’s leadership showcase, the numbers paint a slightly different picture.
In early March, the party announced it had gained 300,000 new members and supporters during the leadership campaign. Half of those were signed up by the Trudeau camp.
Yet just 127,000 completed the registration required to vote -- and about 60 per cent of them are aged 50 and older. Comparatively, 13 per cent are aged 25 to 34 while just eight per cent are under 25.
Asked what these figures say about his attempts to reach out to young Canadians, Trudeau brushed off suggestions his overtures were falling on deaf ears.
“I’m incredibly proud that we have over 10,000 volunteers, most of them young, all across the country in every single riding,” Trudeau said about an hour before his Empire Club talk, on a visit to Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone. There, he met with the team that created Soapbox, a tool on his website that allows users to weigh in on topics he suggests, such as his views on electoral reform, or propose ideas for others to discuss.
“We have had a campaign that has reached out to young people, and one of the great examples of that is Soapbox here,” Trudeau said, noting that the tool got 25,000 hits in the first 24 hours after it was posted while averaging 10,000 hits a day.
But voter turnout statistics from the 2011 federal election suggest he may have difficulty rallying that support on election day.
According to Elections Canada, voter turnout in the last election among 18-to-24-year-olds was 38.8 per cent, well below the national average. In comparison, three-quarters of eligible voters aged 65 to 74 cast a ballot.
So what will mobilize voters of all ages?
Jamie Biggar, executive director of Leadnow, an advocacy group, says there are two main reasons young people don’t vote: they don’t feel their vote will count, and they don’t see leadership from politicians on issues that matter to them, such as the environment or the bleak job prospects facing new graduates.
“When trying to reach out to young people to vote, yes it is good and it is commendable to have been specifically going out to speak to young people,” Biggar said of Trudeau’s youth outreach.
“But it’s not enough. You have to take another step beyond that, which is listen to the concerns that you’re hearing from young people and speak to those concerns with specific policy ideas that are as bold as the times are calling for.”
Trudeau has been criticized for saying he won’t release a detailed platform until much closer to the 2015 vote, which Biggar says puts him at risk of being dismissed as more of the same “same-old, same-old” politician.
“If there’s a new way of doing politics, people want to see what that actually looks like and it’s going to take more than saying that you’re going to do that,” Biggar says.
Stephen Dodge, a 17-year-old Toronto student who attended the Empire Club lunch, will be eligible to vote in 2015. He says part of the reason young people are drawn to Trudeau is because he is speaking directly to them. “We’ve heard of him,” Dodge said.
Dodge acknowledged Trudeau may have robust social media engagement with young Canadians because: “For young people, it’s the easiest thing to do, go on to Facebook and say, ‘Hey, Justin Trudeau said something interesting, you guys should vote for him.’”
He said the answer to Trudeau getting young voters to the ballot box is simple: more of the same.
“I think he needs to open up that social media end to get young people talking about him and thinking, ‘how can I support this guy,’ rather than, ‘how can I make other people support this guy?’”
Biggar says robust social media engagement can translate into voter support -- with a little effort.
“Connecting with them where they are, which can either mean on social media or it can mean face-to-face, and listening to their concerns and their aspirations is essential to beginning to build trust, and trust is a pre-requisite for support and engagement.”
Trudeau, should he become Liberal leader next weekend, as widely expected, seems ready. He acknowledged in his final speech that his father looms large over his political career. But he quickly turned what some perceive as a weakness into an opportunity.
“It’s more about the future than the past. It is always, in every instance, about our children more than our parents’ legacy,” Trudeau said, as his many young supporters looked up at him.
“That with hope and hard work, we can make progress happen. That we can leave a better country to our kids than we inherited from our parents.”