With Elections on the Horizon, What Does the Millennial Vote Mean This Time Around? 

click to enlarge Young supporters attend the Trump rally at the Richmond International Raceway complex two weeks ago. But other millennials came only to observe.

Scott Elmquist

Young supporters attend the Trump rally at the Richmond International Raceway complex two weeks ago. But other millennials came only to observe.

Iman Mourtaza was ready for a spectacle when she set out for the Donald Trump rally in Henrico County two weeks ago, wearing a “Support Trump” sticker.

But the 20-year-old stood tight-lipped while others cheered on the business mogul and Republican frontrunner. She described Trump’s idea of building an epic wall spanning the United States’ southern border as “racist” and “ridiculousness.”

As for why she bothered to wear a Trump sticker, she said: “I think it’s funny. I’m trying to blend in and silently judge and know who to watch for.”

Mourtaza falls in the majority of her generation, ages 18 to 34, when she says that she doesn’t relate to ideas as extreme as Trump’s. She is a millennial, a group that the Pew Research Center predicts will overtake the baby boomers as the largest living generation in the United States this year.

Think tanks, research companies and advertising agencies are falling over themselves trying to understand millennials. And with a little more than a year until the presidential election, politicians are desperate to connect.

So far, the signs point to a young group that sees itself as increasingly separated from, and disillusioned with, the Democratic and Republican parties. A recent Reason-Rupe survey of millennials
reports that a majority identify themselves as independents when first asked. But 16 percent identify as Republicans and 32 percent as Democrats.

A strong liberal swing is evident. A Harvard University Institute of Politics study shows that 55 percent of those ages 18 to 29 would rather have a Democrat as the next president. Pew Research
says nearly two-thirds of voters younger than 30 cast their ballot for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

That’s when they turn out to vote. For the six midterm elections before 2014, 12 percent to 13 percent of the electorate was 18 to 29 years old. In 2002, youth turnout dipped even lower.

“We sort of saw our elected leaders fail us,” says Ben Weiner, a 21-year-old. “I don’t think that we don’t care about the issues. I think it’s hard to get a millennial to vote because they don’t think they are going to change anything.”

Indeed, millennials care, says Alexandra Reckendorf, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. They’re informed consumers who are more likely to Google a company’s moral track record before parting with their money.

“It’s a very political action to say I’m going to use my money here or there,” Reckendorf says. “It can be stronger than a vote.”

A 2011 report from Barkley Marketing found that 37 percent of millennials are compelled to purchase products tied to causes. This may explain why those plain canvas slipons by Toms Shoes are so beloved — for each pair sold, the company donates a pair to a child in need.

Weiner is a millennial who says he believes his vote counts. As a communications fellow for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, he uses social media in an effort to affect public policy concerning the environment. But he understands how his generational peers already are disillusioned and weary from the poor economy and government dysfunction.

Perhaps that helps explain the zest for which young people are flocking to candidate Bernie Sanders, a selfdescribed Democratic-Socialist — even though he’s 74.

Sanders’ ideals fall outside of the range of the traditional parties and reach a group that increasingly defines itself as politically independent. And his belief in correcting economic inequality
may resonate. A recent World Economic Forum survey showed that more than half of millennials named social and economic inequality as a top world issue, and reaffirmed distrust in government leaders.

In a July poll from Economist/You-Gov, voters ages 18 to 29 were nearly split, 45 percent to 44 percent between Hillary Clinton and Sanders. Compare that with the overall age group, and an August CNN/ORC poll has Sanders trailing Clinton, 29 percent to 47 percent.

Despite the appeal of a candidate who trumpets revolution, millennials are paradoxically seen as favoring compromise. They’ve seen the effects of political gridlock and government shutdowns. Even millennials who align with a political party want more bipartisanship.

“There are so many problems in this society, but it doesn’t mean that you just immobilize the government … when people are hurting,” says Ben Dessart, chief of staff for the College Republican Federation of Virginia and a student at the University of Richmond.

Republicans “need to get something done but don’t need to compromise [their] principles,” says Dessart, who is concerned that Trump may be keeping more moderate voters away from the Republican Party.

“I will say that the overwhelming opinion of college students I have talked to is that he is not a contender for the presidency,” Dessart says. “It’s like a TV show. We are absolutely watching Donald Trump but we aren’t going to vote for him.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Virginia Delegate Sam Rasoul, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 11th District. The 34-year-old says compromise is needed, and that belief in social justice shared by many millennials transcends political parties and is a call for efficacy in government.

“As a millennial legislator I feel very passionately about good government issues,” he says. “Not only do I feel that there is a broad consensus, but I think that millennials are interested in consensus builders.” S


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