Unless you have been living in North Korea, your grandmother’s basement or somewhere similarly isolated, you are probably sick to death of hearing about the presidential election. So we are going to give you one more article!
No, seriously. This election warrants a closer look from CisternYard News, and not just because our reporters have met both candidates in person. We wanted to probe the question on everyone’s mind, Republicans and Democrats alike: why is this year so…terrible?
Voters in this election cycle are more polarized and less enthusiastic. A poll conducted by Pew Research Center this summer found that only 45 percent of Republicans and Democrats “strongly support” their respective candidate. This is down from 59 percent for Democrats and 71 percent for Republicans in 2004. More than half of today’s voters are lukewarm about their candidate, yet they are very unlikely to change their minds. The same poll found that only 8 percent of Republicans would consider voting for a Democrat and only 6 percent of Democrats would vote for a Republican. Among registered voters ages 18-29, Pew found that 60 percent would vote for Clinton and just 30 percent would vote for Trump.
So what does all this data mean? How does the historic unpopularity of both candidates affect young people, like college students? Dr. Kendra Stewart, a professor and Director of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, sees many signs of discontent among young people. “Most of what we’re seeing in the polling is a lack of interest,” Stewart noted. “I work with a few national polls and they’re struggling to even get people within that age group to respond.” Dr. Gibbs Knotts, Department Chair for Political Science, echoed Stewart’s ideas and added that after electrifying campaigns like that of Barack Obama in 2008, a feeling of disappointment is to be expected. “I think young people, like all age groups, are recognizing these are probably the two most unpopular candidates ever to run,” Knotts explained. He observed that this unpopularity and lack of interest among young people could have a negative impact on campaigns themselves, which often rely on the low-paying, tireless work of students. “They’re often the lifeline of political campaigns because they are at points in their career where they can take low paying jobs and go out and spend hours of their time for a cause,” Stewart added. “And if we are starting to lose that then that’s a real problem, as well as a real shame, for our system.”
So are young people just turning away from politics altogether? Dr. Jordan Ragusa argues no. “Young people definitely have an interest in this election, in ways that they haven’t before,” Ragusa said. “I think young people are very concerned about what’s going on in American politics today…they know that there’s a lot that needs to be solved and they realize that it disproportionately affects them.” Ragusa cited wage stagnation, poor job prospects, climate change and political corruption as key concerns for young voters. “Young people are very disaffected, they’re less likely to vote, but they do have a lot of power,” Ragusa said.
While their level of interest is debatable, few can deny that young people are feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied with the current candidates. Many students were particularly disaffected when Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination, defeating the grass-roots enthusiasm of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Amid accusations of bias and misconduct against former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, many Sanders supporters felt that they were robbed of a victory. “I think the primaries worked exactly as they’re intended to,” Stewart commented. “If people feel failed by the system, that is a very good reason for them to try and participate to change that system.” Despite claims about corruption and superdelegates, Stewart states that in the end, Clinton won fair and square. And the Sanders campaign was hardly a failure, as Dr. Gibbs Knotts added. “It is crystal clear to me that the Sanders folks had some huge impacts on Clinton and the issues she talks about now on the campaign, and certainly what went into the Democratic platform.” According to Knotts, the fact that this momentum could not carry Sanders to the top of the ticket is “a good lesson that you don’t always get what you want in politics, but you can have an impact.”
So if young voters are coming of age during an election cycle that leaves them dissatisfied at best, absent at worst, what does this bode for our political future? Typically, someone’s past voting record is the best indication of what their future voting record will be. For example, if an 18 year old sits out this year’s election they are less likely to vote in elections during the rest of their adult life. “There’s been studies that show that voting is habitual, it’s habit forming,” Knotts explained. “There are political candidates that we can believe in, they will come again. But one of the things that’s important is to stay engaged and stay involved.”
If politics are at a historic low, who is to blame? One possible factor is the rise of political polarization in the United States. Split-tickets, when voters choose a President from one party and other elected officials from the other party, were once commonplace. They have become extremely rare over time as voters have become more and more ideologically partisan. According to Pew Research, 145 out of 435 House districts went with one party for president and the other party for their representative in 1988. By 2012, the number of split-ticket districts had plummeted to 26.
Who is responsible for this increase in polarization? Scholars in political science have identified several factors. We asked our experts if younger people are more or less polarized than older people. Stewart believes that young people are less polarized. “When young people go off to college or they move away and get a job, they’re exposed to different beliefs and attitudes, and so it’s not usual for them to soften their views or change their minds.” The irony, as Stewart noted, is that our current candidates are beneficiaries of this fluidity in political identity. Hillary Clinton was a Republican who became a Democrat during her college years and Donald Trump switched from blue to red sometime in the last decade or so.
Dr. Ragusa sees it more as a question of education, not age. “It takes some degree of sophistication and education to know what politics is all about and know what it means to be liberal or conservative,” he explained. As a person learns more, they feel more cognitive dissonance, because their old ideas clash with their new, developing ones. They will resolve these inconsistencies in their ideas until they no longer feel discomfort. “The more educated you are, the more you’ve sorted your political beliefs. And then, by definition, you are more extreme. You’re more ideological.”
Those Darn Kids
A common complaint about young people is that they are ignorant and unaware of politics. Case in point, hardly an episode goes by without Bill O’Reilly, one of the most-watched pundits in television, complaining about the ignorant, pot-smoking urchins who are ruining our great country.
“I think they’re unfairly blamed and mischaracterized,” Ragusa stated. “Their eyes are wide open to these challenges and they are naturally upset. And I think they’re right to be upset.” These frequent accusations against young people beg the obvious question: Since young people typically vote less than older people, how can they be the ones responsible for our broken political system? Are voters not accountable for their actions? The current Congress was predominantly chosen by older voters, not young people. So how is the dysfunction of Congress the fault of a person in their early twenties? Ragusa also pointed out the potential power of the often-maligned millennials. “There is such a sizeable emerging voting block, in the future they’re going to have enormous political power.”
Everyone has an opinion on this election: the media, politicians, special interest groups, celebrities, your roommate, your mom. In the midst of this hailstorm of misinformation and misdirection, it can be difficult to drill down, examine the issues and pick a side. But that is exactly what we have to do. People are adamant that this is a watershed election, a moment of enormous historical importance, a time for us to define America for the 21st century. Young people are rarely viewed as a serious force in this decision.
Prove them wrong.
*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.