The group’s concerns were largely about issues that affect them personally, and how that will drive their choice for the Democratic nominee.
Young voters are primed to have a say in who will be the next Democratic nominee to a degree that has never been seen. According to the Brookings Institution, millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — are the largest voting bloc in the country. But historically, young voters have not always been as vocal as they could be. In 2016, less than half — 46.1 percent — of voters age 18 to 29 voted in the presidential election, according to the Census Bureau. But young voters were the only age group to report an increase in 2016 compared with 2012. And because that trajectory continued into the current primary, young voters are expected to keep having an impact in 2020. This is particularly the case given that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — the presidential candidate polling best with young voters — is leading in the national polls.
Harvard’s Public Opinion Project, an initiative that examines political opinions, voting trends and views on public service held by young Americans, convened 25 young adults ages 20 to 29 who live in the greater Charleston area to discuss the issues and worries that are informing their choice in the primary. The participants shared their ages, race, education and whom they are voting for, but did not share their last names to protect their privacy.
Concerns varied greatly from the diverse group of voters planning to participate in the Democratic primary, but when asked whether they were struggling financially, all participants raised their hands. Despite many Americans, including President Trump, rating the economy as the best since the late 1990s, many young voters — weighed down by college debt and underemployment — said they aren’t experiencing it.
The young people spent significant time lamenting the economic challenges their generation is facing, including the state’s minimum wage ($7.25 an hour); the lack of affordable housing within city limits; and the inaccessibility that gentrification creates for people of color.
Frustration with the culture wars was also present, as were worries about immigration, foreign conflicts and racism that persists in this state in particular.
“The way [Trump] talks about immigration and Mexico and that kind of thing and the border, it can be very divisive,” said Jay T., a 28-year-old black car salesman. “In Charleston, now with the president, you see a little more of the racial tensions, but it’s always been kind of rough here.”
“I am part of an immigrant family. And just the talk and rhetoric around immigration in this country at this time — it’s impacted the way that I have had to interact with certain individuals who are close-minded,” said Samantha, a server studying at the College of Charleston. Her family emigrated from Brazil. “It’s impacted the way that I have fought or the amount that I fight for immigration policies.”
“My brother is a pilot in the Navy,” said a 20-year-old white student named Julius, in a discussion about heightened U.S. tensions with Iran. “So me with talking with my parents, we do worry that he might be next to go up.”
The few participants in the group who did know whom they were backing are supporting Sanders. This tracks with most young voters nationally. According to the most recent Washington Post/ABC poll, half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters under 50 were supporting Sanders.
Outreach to young-voter groups has been higher during this election cycle than in past contests, Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, told the Fix.
“In our assessment of studying [young voter trends] for about two decades, we have found that young voters suffer from issues of access rather than issues of apathy,” she said.
The idea that young people do not care about the direction of the country and who is shaping it is not supported by the data, Kiesa said. But very often, young Americans are not engaged by campaigns and encouraged to participate in the voting process.
And it’s key that campaigns and others involved in the political process are working to engage young voters, many of them participating in the political process for the first time.
“One of the things that’s really important to keep in mind with respect to young voters is that they are incredibly diverse in so may ways, so no one issue is going to be the top issue for all young people,” Kiesa added.