Does a Generation Burdened by Debt Care About Government Spending?

Democrats and Republicans would do well to talk about the federal deficit. No, seriously.

A roll of 'I Voted' stickers, which are handed out to residents after they vote, sit on an election officials table at a polling place on November 4, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The political arguments for reducing the national debt often focus on the disastrous results awaiting our children and grandchildren. But do the kids even care?

A Washington-based nonprofit known as The Can Kicks Back set out to answer that question by testing an interactive, online ad campaign in two U.S. House races this year. That data, provided to Bloomberg Politics, show younger voters may indeed be willing to engage on federal spending.

"Growing up in the recession has had a real effect on how they view this stuff," said Ryan Schoenike, executive director of the group.

That rings true to Corie Whalen Stephens, the 27-year-old spokeswoman for another youth-focused political group, Generation Opportunity.

"For a lot of people my age, it's been hard to find jobs, get out of debt from college, save up," she said. "We have to be fiscally conservative with our own finances, so we expect that from our government, too."

To assess millennials' interest in spending issues, The Can Kicks Back deployed a set of online ads in California's 5th Congressional District, just north of San Francisco, where Democratic Representative Mike Thompson easily won reelection; and in New York's 1st District in eastern Long Island, where Republican Lee Zeldin unseated Democratic Representative Tim Bishop. The group identified the two districts as having relatively high rates of millennials (which they're defining as 18- to 34-year-olds).

The marketing campaign exceeded expectations with response rates that topped average Google benchmarks for political ads, according to an analysis from CampaignGrid, the online advertiser. The data showed that millennials were more likely to click on animated ads about the nation's debt issues as opposed to more dramatic or comedic spots. Women were more likely to watch the ads than men, while the click rate among Hispanic viewers skewed higher compared to blacks, Asians and whites.

Democrats, Republicans and independents all clicked through the ads at comparable rates, an indication to Schoenike that there may be bipartisan interest in the issue. "The conventional wisdom is that young voters aren't interested in fiscal issues, and it's just not true," Schoenike said. "It's that no one is talking to them."

The group's research could give some hints on how campaigns can engage young voters, who didn't turn out in the numbers they did in 2012. A report from Pew Research in March showed millennials are generally unattached to organized politics and religion, laden with debt, and more likely than older generations to say they support an activist government. A poll released in October by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government indicated that the youth vote is now up for grabs and could be a critical swing vote.

Harvard defines millennials as 18- to 29-year-olds, and polling director John Della Volpe notes that by the time the younger half of the group started paying attention to politics, President Barack Obama was in office and the country was well into hard economic times. They weren't part of the 2008 "hope and change" Obama promise, he said. "They've known nothing but gridlock and recession."

Boring as it may sound, government spending could be the best way for either party to connect with the kids. Della Volpe said he has been surprised by how high dealing with the deficit has been ranking among other priorities, including foreign policy and the environment, in recent Harvard millennial surveys.

"The issue is there for the taking and can really be a conversation starter between any politician and millennials," he said. He suggested it begin like this: "We all have limited resources. You. Me. Our government. We need to make the right choices as to how we spend money. Here are my ideas."

The Can Kicks Back, which leans Republican in its approach to government spending, will pore over the data and come up with best practices for youth engagement. Heretofore, some of its work in that area has seemed a bit out of touch, like when it got budget hawk and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson to dance Gangham Style. He was 81 years old at the time.

So what does get people's attention? Generation Opportunity, which has been around since June 2011 and gets funding from the billionaire Koch brothers' network of conservative donors, thinks it has found something. "The idea of generational theft, that we're being taken advantage of, that really wakes people up," Whalen Stephens said. Since March, it has been promoting a "petition to end the war on youth."

By signing up, "you are declaring that politicians must STOP STEALING money from young Americans," it says in part.

Generation Opportunity has proved it can do buzzy. Its series of "Creepy Uncle Sam" videos disparaging Obamacare have been viewed about 10 million times.