PHILADELPHIA — On Wednesday night, the Harvard Institute of Politics pulled together a focus group of eight millennial voters from the Philadelphia area, and a small group of journalists watched. One of the millennials supported the Green Party presidential candidacy of Jill Stein. The rest professed to be totally undecided — despondent about the election, offended that they were being asked to choose between major party candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Most of the participants asked for anonymity. A few, including the Green-voting 27-year-old Amanda, offered up their first names and allowed a few follow-up questions. The small sample of voters, in one swing state, was illustrative just as the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs and Research poll had been — and with the same tantalizing power for Democrats. Unlike some of the white working-class men who are breaking for Trump, the millennials were onboard with the Democrats' 2016 agenda. But they were struggling to cast a vote. Among the lessons:
1. They agree with the Democrats on the issues. For the better part of an hour, the members of the group listed their most pressing policy concerns, from climate change to taxes to education to agriculture. When all the terms were written on a whiteboard, they were ask to list their top three, and for each, say which candidate they agreed with. Seven of the eight millennials ended up preferring Clinton on the issues; the eighth, as mentioned above, preferred Stein.
2. They despise Donald Trump. It's the second reason Democrats think millennials are the most gettable voters still not on board with Clinton. Asked to describe Trump with whatever words came to mind, every member of the group came up with a negative word: “All about himself.” “Bully.” “Evil.” “Racist.” “Misogynist.” “Bigot.” “Hot-tempered.” The only dissent came from a member of the group who thought Trump was “smart” in his approach to terrorism; no one else defended any aspect of Trump's campaign or persona.
Asked to assign terms for Clinton, the members of the group were more balanced. Among the terms: “Career politician.” “Experienced.” “Shady but knowledgeable.” “Untrustworthy but stable.” “Hard-working, corrupt, real-deal politician.” The harshest judgment came from Amanda, the Stein voter, who dismissed Clinton with the description “b----, liar, false.” In this group, “undecided” did not mean that Trump could earn a vote.
3. They're souring on Gary Johnson. No one in the group said that the Libertarian candidate was his or her top choice for president. Several did say they were considering voting for him. “One of the guys at work is all about Gary Johnson,” said Alex, 26. “He can't stop talking about him. Another member of the group said that Johnson deserved more media attention than he was getting.
But when asked to play word association, the focus group largely had indictments of Johnson, referring to the increasingly infamous incidents of Johnson stumbling over a foreign policy question, then dismissing the mistake as the result of a “gotcha.” Several members of the group called Johnson ignorant. Timothy, 26, called Johnson “uneducated and stoned.”
That, he admitted, was not enough of a reason to write Johnson off. Timothy — who said he would have liked to support a Republican nominee but that Trump was unacceptable — said he could ignore Johnson's problems and cast a protest vote, unless it seemed possible, on Election Day, that Trump would win.
4. They're counting on something — an assassin, impeachment — to prevent Trump from doing too much damage. Alex paralyzed the room with laughter when he floated a strange and “dark” idea. “If Trump wins,” he said, “he's probably going to be assassinated, and Mike Pence will become president.”
Alex, a Democrat who had voted for Barack Obama in 2008, had stayed home in 2012 and cooled on most politicians. He had come to like Pence for his demeanor, as seen at Tuesday night's debate. But the more important point was that a Trump presidency did not seem like a four- or eight-year proposition.
“He's going to be in court most of the time as president,” said one focus group member who preferred to be anonymous. “He's going to get impeached.”
5. They're not necessarily thinking about all the powers a president would have. One of the questions that halted the group's discussion was simple: How was the Supreme Court affecting their vote? Several members of the group admitted that they had not considered this; when they did, as in the issue round, they preferred that Clinton appoint members of the court.