To understand why Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is pouring so much effort into energizing millennials, talk to a new voter like Aalayha Robb.
“I’m registered, but I don’t know that I feel strongly enough to vote this year,” said Robb, a first-year University of Minnesota student from Sioux Falls. Robb has been turned off by what she called Donald Trump’s “racial comments,” but not so much that she’s ready to pull the lever for Clinton. “I don’t want to vote just because I can,” she said.
As of this election year, millennials have overtaken baby boomers as the largest living generation in the United States. In Minnesota, these 18- to 34-year-old voters make up more than a third of the voting population — tied with Generation X, and easily exceeding boomers. Poll after poll has shown millennials lean further to the left than their older peers, but are also less likely to identify with traditional political parties — and less motivated to vote at all.
“I don’t like Trump so much that maybe I’ll vote for Hillary just because I don’t want him to win,” Robb said. “But I don’t know if that’s fair.”
In a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in September, Clinton tallied her best margins among millennial voters, scoring 51 percent support to just 24 percent for Trump. It was the only voting demographic that gave her an outright majority of support. The race was much closer overall, with Clinton leading Trump by just 6 percentage points.
Several other recent polls of Minnesotans also pointed to a tightening presidential race here, although all were taken before last Monday’s debate.
Both in Minnesota and nationally, Clinton’s campaign has labored in these crucial final weeks of the campaign to motivate millennials.
A “millennial Vote Kickoff Event” last Thursday night in St. Paul featured Anne Holton, the wife of vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine. On Tuesday, Clinton’s former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders will leverage his own popularity with young, liberal voters on Clinton’s behalf at rallies in Minneapolis and Duluth.
“Young people don’t blindly follow candidates,” said Keaon Dousti, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota senior who is one of more than 50 “campaign fellows” in Minnesota who are volunteering between 15 and 40 hours a week to grow the millennial vote. A former Sanders supporter, Dousti said Clinton’s best tack is to stress issues young voters care about. He cited criminal justice reform and climate change as examples.
The Trump campaign lacks the kind of organizing infrastructure in Minnesota that Clinton’s team has assembled. With only one paid staffer here, outreach to voting blocs — young or otherwise — is largely left to dedicated volunteers.
“I find support for Donald Trump on Minnesota campuses every day,” said Richard Penny, a volunteer field director of the national Students for Trump organization, and a junior at Hamline University. Penny said he believes Trump’s background outside politics and his more liberal view on social issues like gay rights are natural selling points to younger voters. “We like candidates who aren’t the norm and that’s Donald Trump,” said Penny, 21.
Interviews with millennials at the University of Minnesota campus and in downtown Minneapolis last week found that most are paying at least some attention to the presidential race, although most initially insisted they don’t feel well-informed about it. Most watched last Monday night’s debate, including Nate DeLisle, a 19-year-old U freshman from Appleton, Wis.
“My parents are conservative. I lean conservative. There’s always Fox News on in our house,” DeLisle said. But Trump’s performance on the debate stage sowed doubts.
“I’m not necessarily sure he has the composure — he just does not seem presidential,” DeLisle said. “He came across as very rude. I think he has a lot of interesting ideas, but he can’t support his ideas well.”
A vote for Clinton is not out of the question, DeLisle said.
Most of the millennials interviewed were still undecided. Few of the young women seemed particularly moved by the historic nature of Clinton possibility becoming the first female president.
Maggie Daggett, a sophomore psychology major from Bloomington, said her dad supports Trump and her mom supports Clinton. “I have to decide which one to follow,” she said, giving Trump the edge at the moment.
Several cited President Obama’s support for Clinton as a motivating factor. Younger voters were a key piece of Obama’s winning margins in the last two presidential elections.
“If nothing else, she’s closer to Obama,” said Cody Fokim, 21, a junior from Stevens Point, Wis. “I have a Democratic view in general, so most of what she’d cover, I agree with. But her past, the stuff she’s gotten herself into, makes her not as credible. That’s where the issue lies.”
Concern about Clinton did tend to pivot around recent coverage of things like her use of private e-mail while Secretary of State, and questions about her family’s Clinton Foundation. Few could relay specifics, but they seemed to add up to a perception of untrustworthiness.
“You know, that whole scandal with her? The one that happened a couple weeks ago?” Daggett said.
Younger voters with a few previous presidential elections under their belts were a little more secure in their opinions.
“I was really into Sanders but I’m happy to go for Hillary,” said Katherine Shaffer-Wishner, a 30-year-old Minneapolis resident. Shaffer-Wishner has a psychology degree from the University of Minnesota but is currently making a living as a temp, and was happy to hear Clinton’s early remarks in last week’s debate about improving the U.S. job climate.
“They say you have to get your foot in the door,” said Shaffer-Wishner, who graduated right at the bottom of the Great Recession. “I feel like I’ve been doing that for many years now.”
Caitlin Opperman, a second-year law student at the University of Minnesota, said she was glad to learn of Clinton’s plan for student loan forgiveness, which would allocate $115 billion and could benefit up to 25 million borrowers by lowering payments through refinancing at current interest rates.
“I’m looking at finishing law school about $100,000 in debt, so that’s obviously a great concern to me,” said Opperman, who hopes to work in public interest law. “It was an investment in myself, but it’s also a lot of pressure.”
Hoku Aki, a 32-year-old from Minneapolis, has already benefited from Democrat-crafted policies. The bartender and music producer attained health insurance through Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “Free insurance is great,” he said. Still, Aki said right now he’s leaning toward Trump.
“I feel like he’d be less of a puppet,” Aki said. “But I also don’t like his supporters. There’s something off about a lot of them. I might just write in Bernie Sanders’ name.”
Star Tribune staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.