Harnessing the power of unpredictable millennial voters

In the final weeks before the provincial election, Ontario's political parties need to engage the group of voters who are now the biggest demographic — millennials.

Ontario's election is the first with more millennial than baby boomer voters

There are more than 3.5 million millennial voters in Ontario, according to the most recent Census data, and they could shape the outcome of the June 7 election if they turn up to vote. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

In the final weeks before the provincial election, Ontario's political parties will need to engage the group of voters who are now the biggest demographic: Millennials.

Millennial voters outnumber baby boomers for the first time in an election, which could shape the outcome of the June 7 election, said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.

"If they are engaged and they turn out and vote, and turnout collectively for one party, they can shift the outcome," Coletto told CBC News.

Whether millennials — generally defined as those born between 1980 and 2000 — will show up at the polls is a big question mark, Coletto says. But it happened in 2015 and resulted in a 20-point increase in youth turnout and the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

According to the latest Census data, there are roughly 3.5 million millennials in Ontario. Coletto says the parties can appeal to this demographic by focusing messages on issues young people care about such as jobs, housing affordability and child care.

Coletto — who at 36 is a millennial — acknowledges trying to harness the young vote is a risky proposition because millennials are volatile and unpredictable, but they're also more open to voting for any party than previous generations.

Open to any party

"For example, two-thirds say they'd be open to voting NDP, six out of 10 say they're open to voting Liberal, and even a majority say they are open to voting Conservative."

This is where messaging can come into play. Coletto says Conservative Leader Doug Ford's comments about wanting to cut back on corruption and waste at Queen's Park may not resonate with voters worrying about saving for a down payment on their first home or finding a stable job.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford's messages about reducing waste at Queen's Park may not appeal to some younger voters. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

In Ottawa, Karrah and Aaron Baily, 31 and 33, are buying their first home, which has made that an issue for them in this election.

Aaron says he's a "centrist" who hasn't decided who to vote for, but doesn't plan on voting for the Conservatives.

"I just think that provincially, maybe the social programs deserve more attention in terms of lightening the loads in other aspects of people's lives that may prevent them from buying a home."

Karrah says she leans to the left but is still undecided.

Both say their generation needs to be better informed on the issues, especially because of the power they could yield as voters.

"There's just so many of us know we have to come out in force to exercise that power. It hasn't been happening and I think that's why we're not seeing a lot of change," Aaron said.

Calgary's Nenshi wooed young voters

In Calgary's 2017 municipal election, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was bolstered by young voters and the power of social media, Nenshi's campaign manager Zain Velji told CBC News.

"It was really about trying to find people who were the most engaged with the mayor and asking them, frankly, to do the heavy lifting on the campaign," Velji said.

Political parties need to adapt their advertising strategies to use more digital and social media to engage younger voters. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"That strategy especially applied to the millennial population, which was to say, could we find the most engaged millennials, give them the connectivity — and frankly the content that they needed — and let them share content about the campaign, content about the mayor."

For Coletto, the millennial pollster, this is the kind of strategy that makes sense because young people don't use traditional media such as TV or radio nearly as much as their parents.

Spend ad dollars on social media

He says parties need to spending advertising dollars on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and then get people engaged in what the party is saying.

"[Millennials] have a say in the outcome and what I'm starting to see, which is really interesting, is a growing collective understanding that this generation has muscle if they come together and vote," Coletto said.

"Whether that translates into them actually showing up on election day for this election, I think remains to be seen."

For the first time, millennial voters will outnumber baby boomers. CBC News spoke to some of those potential voters to see what issues they're focused on. 2:45

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said there were roughly six to seven million millennials in Ontario. In fact, there are roughly 3.5 million, according to the 2016 census.
    May 27, 2018 11:30 AM ET

With files from Hannah Thibedeau