Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Steyer half right about Iowa's young voters- was it the half that mattered?

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer on Aug. 11 attends the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer on Aug. 11 attends the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Introduction

“If you look at Iowa, I started an organization called NextGen America to get young people to be registered, to be involved and to turn out. We are on 41 campuses in the state of Iowa. We’ve been here since the beginning of 2013. If you look at 2014 versus 2018 in the places we were, turnout by people under 30 went from 18 percent — less than 1-in-5 people under 30 were voting — to more than 41 percent. More than “two x.” That is how you revive democracy.”

Source of claim

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, speaking Aug. 11 at the Des Moines Register’s Iowa State Fair soapbox.

Analysis

NextGen America launched to help power a “blue wave” by mobilizing a historically unreliable demographic — young people — to register and show up at the polls for progressive candidates.

NextGen was active in 11 states with 750 staff and more than 16,000 volunteers in the 2018 midterm election cycle, in which candidates it supported won 69 percent of their elections, the organization’s website says.

NextGen America provided a list of 41 campuses in Iowa where the organization was active in 2018, which includes four-year schools and two-year community colleges across much of the state, such as Kirkwood Community College, the University of Northern Iowa, Wartburg College and Dordt College. Currently, the organization is active on 12 campuses but the number is expected to grow as the 2020 election approaches.

The 41 colleges have a presence in 28 Iowa counties, including Black Hawk, Linn, Johnson, Sioux and O’Brien.

For the purpose of this analysis, only the main campus was considered for colleges with multiple locations. For example, Des Moines Area Community College, which has several satellite locations, was considered Polk County.

Steyer’s campaign provided internal marketing material as support for the claims, but no original source material.

Benjamin Gerdes, a campaign spokesman, said Steyer was referring to voters NextGen had “specifically organized.” That group, he said, saw a youth turnout rate of 63.2 percent, 22 points higher than the overall youth turnout of 41 percent, and more than double the 28.4 percent turnout for the same age range in the 2014 election cycle. That is where the “2x” increase comes from, he said in an email — though those figures are not the same ones Steyer cited in his claim.

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The NextGen report defines “organized” as “young people who were registered, canvassed, or committed to vote by NextGen’s field and mail programs.”

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office maintains election data reports, which include information about voter registration and participation by county and age range.

For the purposes of this claim, the applicable age ranges were 18 to 24 and 25 to 34. Steyer had cited “under 30” as the break-off point, but his campaign provided no additional information for under 30.

A Fact Checker review of data from the Secretary of State’s Office found turnout for those aged 18 to 34 was 28 percent in 2014, climbing to 41 percent in 2018 in the 28 counties where NextGen had a presence.

For comparison, in counties where NextGen did not have a campus, turnout increased from 27 to 37 percent, our review found.

Some national sources measure turnout for those aged 18-29.

The United States Election Project based at the University of Florida Department of Political Science found an increase nationally from 18 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2018. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found Iowa turnout of those aged 18-29 increased from 22.1 percent in 2014 to 34.7 percent in 2018, and nationally from 21 percent to 31 percent.

Some NextGen material identifies the Iowa turnout percentage as 28.4 in 2014 and 41 in 2018, matching Iowa Secretary of State data.

Conclusion

The youth vote in Iowa clearly increased from 2014 to 2018, but not by as much as Steyer claimed.

Steyer appears to be mixing data from different sources, which on their own are accurate or close to it. Put together they overstate the increase in Iowa’s youth turnout.

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His figure of 41 percent turnout in 2018 matches the 41 percent documented in Iowa Secretary of State data, except the state data is for ages 18-34 while Steyer specifically said “under 30.” Tufts, which measured the “under 30” range in Iowa, put youth turnout at 34.7 percent statewide.

For 2014, Steyer claimed 18 percent turnout, which is lower than the Secretary of State’s 28 percent but on par with the 22.1 percent from Tufts.

As far as how much turnout increased, Iowa Secretary of State data — 28 percent in 2014 to 41 percent in 2018 — translates to a 43 percent increase between the two midterm elections. Iowa data from Tufts points to a 57 percent increase for those under 30.

In each case, the increase is not “two x,” as Steyer claimed at the Iowa State Fair.

It is also worth noting that turnout in areas where NextGen did not organize in Iowa and around the nation was also up substantially.

Given his numbers were partly right, we give Steyer a C.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli of The Gazette.

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