Did millennial apathy propel Trump election?
LOS ANGELES >> The Election Day party began shortly after 5 p.m., as UCLA students flooded onto Wilson Plaza, past white picket fences adorned with American flag regalia.
They took their places at tables lit by the projected red-and-blue glow of electoral maps on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, blissfully unaware that, as Donald Trump stunned the world by winning the presidency hours later, the same maps would be, for most of them, a source of existential dread.
For now, they ate red and blue cotton candy, took selfies with the flag, and talked about their relief at this election’s end. Even as millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest voting generation in American history this election, many were so frustrated with the system and the presidential choices it offered that they felt disenfranchised from politics entirely.
Still, a sense of cathartic relief was in the air. A DJ played the “Cha Cha Slide,” and a dance party broke out at the center of the plaza. Nearly everyone here expected the same result – a splash of blue on the map and an acceptance speech from America’s first female president.
Safiya Hussein, 19, sat at one of the front tables, in a group of young Muslim women, excitedly awaiting that announcement. Many of her peers clamored for Bernie Sanders and only reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton, turned off by her establishment roots. But Hussein, who loved her plans for debt-free college, supported Clinton from the start.
Ralphie Gevorgyan, 21, was less enthused.
Seated at a nearby table, Gevorgyan voted Clinton, but admitted it was “an unpleasant pill to swallow.” Next to him, Mauricio Alarcon, 23, felt the same. He wondered if millennials would seize their political power in the midst of such disillusionment.
“I’m not confident it will ever happen,” Alarcon said.
This conflict was central to millennial sentiment heading into Election Day. Given the generation’s tendency to skew liberal, some experts wondered if a strong turnout from America’s largest and most ethnically diverse generation could mark a turning point at the start of a liberal political revolution.
But even as millennials emerged as one of Clinton’s strongest coalitions on Election Day, questions about their future as a voting bloc remain. Turnout data and interviews with dozens of young voters reveal a generation wary of the current system and averse to identifying with parties that no longer speak to their progressive values. In the coming years, it’s a conflict that could decide the shifting ideology of the nation.
The reality of a Trump presidency would shake that sentiment even further.
As Trump crossed the electoral threshold hours later, a wave of disbelief washed over the UCLA watch party. Shock turned to anger. And anger morphed into a campuswide protest, as more than 1,000 chanting students marched from Wilson Plaza across Westwood. Across the country, similar protests played out in the days that followed.
Hussein would join the chants for a while, before heading home, dejected. “I was lost for words,” she said.
She’d been so confident. Why, she wondered, hadn’t millennials made a bigger impact? How could the American electorate’s view of Trump be so different from hers?
“I feel like this was a wake-up call for millennials in America,” she said on Wednesday.
“Maybe if we just went out more, the results could have been different.”
‘AN OPEN QUESTION’
In 2008, when Barack Obama first captured the enthusiasm of millennials across America, 67 percent of voters aged 18-29 cast their ballots for the nation’s first African American president.
Eight years later, with a chance to elect America’s first female president, an estimated 55 percent – or 13 million of the 23.7 million under-30 millennials who voted – chose Clinton, according to exit poll data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
“There’s been a clear drop-off in enthusiasm,” Paul Taylor, author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” said on Wednesday.
“Millennials have the most stake in how our country precedes. So to what degree will they engage in and be activated by politics now? It’s an open question.”
Peter Levine, the former director of CIRCLE and a professor at Tufts University, says it’s “unfair to blame youth” for the election’s results. Clinton’s percentage of millennial voters, he points out, was still the third-highest for a Democratic candidate since 1972.
But even as millennials become more diverse and lean further left, Trump still garnered 37 percent of their vote – equal to Mitt Romney in 2012. Millennial support of third-party candidates, meanwhile, more than doubled, as 8 percent eschewed the two major parties, up from 3 percent in 2012.
“You could look forward and say that Democrats have a lot of work to do, if they believe this to be their core constituency,” Levine said.
In the final days before the election, some millennials did attempt to show their enthusiasm for Clinton, fully aware of the divide within their generation.
Last Sunday, a group of nearly 50 Clinton supporters, all dressed in pantsuits, broke out in a choreographed flash mob in a Culver City square, as Katy Perry’s “Firework” played.
Among them was Elizabeth Holcomb, 30, dressed in a fully beige ensemble. Amidst such a vitriolic campaign, she came out in hopes of doing something positive. But as she expressed full support for Clinton, Holcomb admitted she was “depressed” by the political status quo.
“There’s wide recognition that the system isn’t working the way we want it to work,” Holcomb said.
On the eve of the election, at the Democratic Party’s Westside HQ, some young voters sat at tables, texting and making calls on behalf of Clinton’s campaign. Even here, among her most avid supporters, there was concern about the incongruity of millennial values and the political system.
Fielder Jewett, a 27-year old West Hollywood resident, worried that “a lot of (millennials) don’t know what they can do to effect change.”
“It’s easy to feel like the entire process is out of our hands,” he added.
In conversations with millennial voters on both sides of the aisle, most suggested that being pigeonholed into two-party system only exacerbated their powerlessness. According to a Pew Research Center study earlier this year, 48 percent of millennials, aged 18-33, identified as independents – more than ever before.
For some young conservatives, that refusal to affiliate with the Democratic Party, coupled with the disillusionment of this election, could open the door for the Republican Party to appeal to moderate millennials, if it were to evolve.
“The party that supported (millennials) for so long is not really helping them,” says Nikita Koultchyev, 30.
“They want to be heard,” adds Nestor Moto Jr., a Long Beach resident and vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Orange County. “They want to be part of a political process that isn’t beholden to the establishment or corrupt, wealthy donors.”
Moto, who is gay and Latino, says a lack of tolerance is what’s holding most young voters back from embracing the Republican Party. In other conversations with millennial conservatives, this sentiment was near-unanimous. A few even described themselves as socially liberal.
Levine of CIRCLE agrees there’s a tendency to overgeneralize millennials as “all liberal college students.” In fact, a plurality – 48 percent – of white millennials, a large swath of whom live in rural states and are working class, voted for Trump on Election Day.
Any such progress to lure young voters to the right still seems farfetched in the short term, though, given the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and the huge political divide that persists along racial lines. Seventy percent of young Latinos voted Democratic on Election Day, while 83 percent of young African Americans chose Clinton. That generation is only growing more diverse with each election.
Jennifer Barbosa, however, points to herself as evidence of a millennial crossing the aisle.
Barbosa, who lives in Hollywood, voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but said she felt disillusioned by his time in office. Upon watching Trump announce his candidacy, she says she was “hooked” by his anti-establishment message. Many young conservatives feel that same sentiment could bring in frustrated former supporters of Bernie Sanders, too.
But first, “they have to work for our support,” Barbosa said of the Republican Party. “The image has to change.”
The night of the election, a large group of young conservatives gathered inside Mr. Furley’s Bar in Sherman Oaks, donning red “Make America Great Again” hats.
By the time Trump had carried Florida, the bar was a raucous celebration. The mood was in stark contrast to the disbelief on UCLA’s campus – another sign of the growing political chasm, even in a generation once perceived to be at the forefront of a liberal movement.
“The parties are evolving fast,” Moto said the next day, “and Donald Trump, or at least his style, is the future of American politics.”
For Safiya Hussein, as a young, black Muslim woman, that future is frighteningly uncertain.
She is scared for her family and friends and angry at her peers who responded to their disillusionment by not voting. Fifty percent of millennials, according to CIRCLE, cast a ballot, but it’s the remaining, silent 50 percent that upsets her.
“Still,” she says, “I feel like we can learn from this.”
Like Hussein, Jessica Yu, president of USC Democrats, said she feels Trump’s election will “propel us to fight back.” But she also concedes she’s “not very proud” of how the Democratic Party handled the election. She feels many young voters were cast aside. And as Democrats come to grips with a Trump presidency, how millennials respond in the long term could shape the future of the American political system.
Will their disillusionment persist?
As Hillary Clinton stood at a podium for her concession speech Wednesday morning, she pleaded directly to young voters, in hopes that it wouldn’t.
“Please,” she said, “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
A few hours later, Obama reiterated Clinton’s message to millennials.
“Don’t get cynical,” he said. “Don’t ever think you can’t make a difference. As Secretary Clinton said this morning, fighting for what is right is worth it.”
But in a political system that many young voters feel has left them behind, what that fight will mean for millennials in Trump’s America remains more uncertain now than ever before.