As Race for Youth Vote Heats Up, Cruz Looks to Plant His Flag

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is making an organized push for the youth vote with the help of a 13-year-old activist named CJ Pearson.

CJ Pearson, the 13-year-old chairman of Teens for Ted.
CJ Pearson, the 13-year-old chairman of Teens for Ted.  C.J. Pearson

Thirteen-year-old CJ Pearson believes in Ted Cruz. He believes in him so much that Pearson, a social media savant with a massive following online, is willing to quit as the senator's top ambassador to teen voters if he falls short of his own goal. 

That goal: Set up 150 chapters of a new group called Teens for Ted by Dec. 30, the end of the first semester for most high schoolers. 

"If I’m not capable of finding a way to build this coalition out and make his message go where it needs to go, maybe we need to find a different strategy," said Pearson, the national chairman of Teens for Ted.

Cruz's campaign has also created Millennials for Cruz, a group aimed at voters between the ages of 18 and 24.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“We are still taking classes, and we are still involved with this demographic, and I think that will serve as an advantage" when it comes to organizing young voters, said Alessandra Gennarelli, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin who is co-chairing Millennials for Cruz with two other college students. 

Data on the youth vote and the 2016 race is scarce, but Pearson and other activists see a unique opportunity to make a difference, partly because any advantage with young voters could go a long way in a race in which more than a dozen GOP candidates are scrapping for every last vote. 

"In a race with 17 candidates, any real estate you can lock in on and gain support from" helps, said Cliff Maloney, the national youth director of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's campaign, which has opened 10 Students for Rand chapters in Texas.

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University who studies the youth vote, said the GOP in particular has room to improve with young voters. The Republican National Committee acknowledged as much in its examination of its 2012 election losses, saying young voters are "increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents."

For the GOP, part of connecting with young voters is simply recognizing they exist and making an organized push for their support, Levine said, citing a tendency for some GOP candidates to assume young people are predominantly liberal. 

"Literally just going after young voters is important," he said. "In the last decade, some Republican campaigns have written them off."

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Pearson insists Cruz's campaign is not taking the youth vote lightly. The 13-year-old, whose YouTube videos railing against President Barack Obama have made him a viral sensation, first linked up with the campaign while Cruz was stumping earlier this summer in Georgia. In July, Pearson officially endorsed Cruz for president, switching allegiances after backing Paul in April. 

By Pearson's telling, young voters are looking for a "maverick" who fights for their interests — whether that means easing student debt or curbing government surveillance. But young voters also want a "normal guy who knows how to have fun," Pearson added, saying Cruz fits the bill on both counts. 

“Sen. Cruz just paid off his student loans," Pearson said. "He understands that struggle, and young people are looking for someone who can relate to them.” 

"Mitt Romney didn’t have that problem with student loans and Hillary Clinton doesn’t either," Pearson added with a chuckle.

Among his rivals for the GOP nomination, Cruz's campaign faces growing competition for the youth vote. 

Earlier this month, the campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched a drive for college voters with 135 "campus teams" already in place across the country, including 20 at schools in Texas. The program, called Mission:Next Campus, is being led by Jeb Bush's two sons, Jeb Bush Jr. and George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner. 

On Friday, the Paul campaign announced it had surpassed its goal of opening 300 Students for Rand chapters across the country in 30 days. Maloney said Wednesday the count was up to almost 350 chapters, including those in Texas.

Maloney attributed Paul's youth appeal to his outspoken advocacy for privacy issues and criminal justice reform, as well as his outsider profile as an eye doctor who has only been in Congress for less than four years. 

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

"He’s a different type of Republican that brings ideas to the table that attract different types of demographics and ages, especially youth voters," Maloney said. "That’s what’s going to set him apart, especially in a 17-person field."

While Paul's campaign does not have a group specifically targeted at high schoolers like Teens for Ted is, Maloney promised that in key states the campaign is "going to be making a strong play to turn out the vote with high school students." 

They aren't the only ones. Pearson strikes a competitive tone when asked about other candidates looking to lure young voters. "It’s great," he noted, "to see other campaigns will start working on this six months from now."