Chris Lee, 24, is a case study in a shifting millennial mindset.
“When it comes down to it, I identify as an independent,” said the former Democrat and – get this – former Obama White House intern.
Today, Lee sits on Alabama’s Tuskegee City Council, the youngest person in history elected to the position. “Party affiliation is not as important. It’s about people, not politics,” he says.
Heading into the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats face two major challenges from this historically supportive demographic: Lower voter turnout among millennials is almost certain to occur this year, experts say, while at the same time, more millennials describe themselves as independents. Though there’s been evidence the Republican Party has alienated younger voters over such socially divisive issues as the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, Democrats may actually end up this year with a smaller share of a smaller total vote – though November is still a long way away.
The question and the challenge are obvious: Are Democratic doomed this fall, or can the party reconnect with younger voters between now and the midterms?
Millennial voter turnout tends to drop in midterm elections. A recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) found that less than one in four Americans, or 23 percent, under the age of 30 will “definitely be voting” in November, a significant decrease from 31 percent around this same time in 2010.
In a separate IOP survey of young Americans’ attitudes toward politics and public service done in November 2013, Harvard found that 38 percent consider themselves Democrats and 25 percent Republicans. But roughly 40 percent of millennials do not identify with either party.
Young Republican Claire Hardwick of Washington, D.C., thinks unaffiliated or independent voters are making a mistake.
“You have to choose chocolate or vanilla,” says the 24-year-old Hardwick. As the founder of Elephant News, a website targeting young Republicans, she argues that young people should pick a team with a chance to win and get involved.
Nick Troiano takes issue with this stance, however. He thinks his generation wants and deserves more choices. A former Republican, the 24-year-old is now running as an independent for Congress in Pennsylvania's 10th congressional district.
“We have come of age in a time of choice and customization,” says Troiano. “Independents get to pick the person, not the party.”
He says the disaffection from the major parties is hardly unique to younger voters. “Voters are rational. They don’t want to waste time and energy in a system they don’t think they can change. Real choice will bring people out. Ross Perot showed that in 1992,” adds Troiano. “Real choice and competition will engage more people in our electoral system.”
Yes, Perot did energize new voters, especially in his first 1992 run. But the Texas businessman also placed third despite using his personal fortune to bankroll his campaign.
Combine disenchantment and a lack of viable independent alternatives, and Chris Lee, the former Democrat, sees less participation by a generation that had a significant role in Obama’s two presidential victories.
“It’s a circular pattern,” he says. “Young people aren’t voting at the rates they should be” and as a result, “they aren’t given a voice at the table.”
Even though 60 percent of millennials voted for Obama’s re-election bid in 2012, the new data suggest their support has not led to a deep and lasting Democratic brand affinity. Many millennials are disappointed in the president who promised change, especially those who are finding it tough going in the Obama economy right now.
A recent Pew Research Center Survey found that millennials today are graduating from college with record levels of student debt. Roughly two-thirds of those receiving a bachelor’s degree are graduating with an average debt load of about $30,000. And when they look to Washington, many young people see bickering and gridlock. “We’ve only known our current system not to work,” Troiano says.
Troiano’s campaign is trying to tap into both the distrust – and the disgust. “Our country deserves better than politics as usual,” he says.He takes it as progress that his Pennsylvania campaign team includes two former Capitol Hill interns: one from Democratic Senator Bob Casey’s office, the other from Republican Congressman Tom Marino’s office. Marino is the GOP incumbent Troiano hopes to unseat.
The odds are overwhelmingly against him – but Troiano believes it is a flag worth planting. “Young people who want to make a difference in politics will have to go outside the box to do so.”
But what about those who have given up on trying to make a difference?
Lee understands their disaffection, but says he hopes they can take a longer view. “As millennials, we are young enough to be able to embrace technology and advancements in communication,” he says. “But we’re also old enough to remember a time when things got done, when people sat down and decisions were actually made.”
That disconnect is what inspired him to get into politics. “The main reason I ran for office was to bridge that gap between the old way of thinking and young Americans today,” he says.
Lee’s hope that young Americans stay politically involved will be tested by their 2014 turnout at the ballot this November. Then, in 2016, the test will be whether the share of the youth vote grows for the third consecutive presidential election – and whether, without Barack Obama on the ballot, young voters remain a reliable Democratic constituency. The answers mean a great deal to America’s future.
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