Each election season in the U.S. passes with tens of millions of American votes left uncast.
According to Pew Research, the 2016 election was considered a high turnout year even though only 56% of the voting age population cast a ballot.
It’s unclear whether 2020 will garner more or less votes than four years ago, but with the unprecedented amount of Americans expected to vote by mail, those who typically don’t vote could be swayed to cast a ballot.
And both sides have already invested billions, in part hoping to convince non-voters to cast a ballot.
Time’s running short for organizations looking to galvanize this audience. With the debates in full swing, it’s crucial to understand this group of non-voters, who they are and what will drive them to the polls.
Non-voters are a diverse, but uninformed group.
According to GWI USA data, only 67% of voting-aged Americans say they typically vote in national elections.
Many different groups are represented in this massive portion of Americans who don’t engage politically, but generally speaking they have a lot more in common with one another than Americans on either side of the political spectrum.
Compared to typical voters, non-voters are generally younger, unmarried, and slightly more likely to be Black, Hispanic or Asian American.
They’re 40% less likely than typical voters to have a college degree, and financially, over 40% describe their financial situation as “tight” or “struggling”.
Unlike undecided voters, who hail mostly from the suburbs, non-voters are more likely to live in either urban or rural areas. This may offer unique opportunities to either candidate looking for inroads in hotly contested cities and towns across the country.
Yet this may be easier said than done. In their day-to-day lives, non-voters do not engage with political content much at all, and in a typical month 45% do not engage with news sources whatsoever, whether online or in-print.
It’s unsurprising, then, that a significant portion of this group don’t describe themselves as either liberal or conservative. For the most part they’re uncertain, unwilling to say, or moderate.
Though this data reveals a relatively normal distribution of non-voters on the political spectrum, it also shows the size of the opportunity ahead for either party.
The bulk of these potential voters can still be swayed one way or the other, and campaigns with the right calls to action could bring a critical amount of first-time voters to the polls.
Non-voters are more distrustful of institutions.
In practice, winning over these voters will be harder than nearly every other voting group, in a large part because non-voters show a great deal of distrust in many of the institutions currently attempting to register new voters.
Non-voters are skeptical of “the system” overall, showing high levels of distrust in social media companies, large brands and religious institutions.
This means calls by these organizations to vote may fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, these voters may be abstaining because they feel a single vote doesn’t matter or that the system is rigged.
They’re slightly less distrustful than voters of the media, but this may be due to a lack of interaction.
Even more so than undecided voters, non-voters show a great deal of apathy toward many of the issues currently being debated by the two sides. They’re less likely than voters to worry about the national deficit, climate change, or the U.S. healthcare system (even though the majority of them don’t currently have health insurance).
Their own personal finances is the only issue they care more about than the average voting American.
45% of non-voters say making money is important. Of all possible voters in the country, those who have yet to engage with the voting process may be most influenced by the economic record of either candidate.
However, both sides must remember any economic rhetoric too far left or right may make this – largely moderate – group uneasy and will have an adverse effect.
Non-voters can still be reached on social media.
Choosing the correct messaging to inspire non-voters may be tricky, but finding where to put that message is an easier piece of the puzzle.
Even though they’re less engaged with news and current events than the average American, as well as 25% less likely than typical voters to be subscribed to a cable TV service (still the largest financial arena for political ads), they’re quite active internet users, especially on more niché social media services.
The opportunity for organizations attempting to sway first-time voters is abundant on these platforms.
Non-voters not only use services like Twitch and TikTok in greater numbers than typical voters, they also spend more time on social media overall.
Non-voters are more likely to be using smaller, entertainment-focused social media platforms, like Snapchat and TikTok, and less likely to be using platforms more dominated by news and current events, like Facebook and Twitter.
So while they may not be actively seeking out political content, the amount of time they spend on social media as a whole makes them an attractive audience to more targeted political messaging.
Many political ad formats already reflect this changing reality, as Americans – especially non-voters – are less drawn to click on a long New York Times article detailing policy, and more easily swayed by a series of memes in rapid succession.
Reaching these possible first-time voters, just like with other groups through social channels, will be a process of micro-targeting and understanding each of the issues that an individual could care about most.
Driving non-voters to the polls is no simple task.
Getting Americans to cast a ballot for the first time requires a ton of work. Unlike typical voters, this group is generally less informed, and less trusting of the institutions attempting to corral voters.
The chance of success is highest when one understands the many different ways to view such a large subset of the country.
Race, age, financial situation, and social media usage are all important factors in meeting the right voter, with the right message, in time to make a difference.
And although non-voters aren’t spending as much time in the traditional channels of political discourse in America, meeting them in their online environments with the right messaging will add much needed votes to either side of the election.