Baby boomers and millennials are the largest political forces in America today, with each generation accounting for about 31 percent of the population. 2016 is the first election year in which all millennials are old enough to vote, but will they show up at the polls? If the primaries were any indication, millennials have yet to flex their political muscles, as they had the lowest voter turnout of any age group, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute and professor of comparative literature, anthropology and criminology, law & society at the University of California, Irvine, says that the enthusiasm and engagement among many millennials during the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses began to dissipate as it became clear that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was not going to get the nomination. Their peers supporting GOP nominee Donald Trump, although smaller in number, continue their activism and participation in his campaign.
But the majority of Trump supporters are middle-aged, not young people, so how the primary results – disappointment on one side, elation on the other – will affect millennial participation in the general election depends largely on whether or not the polls continue to trend in Hillary Clinton’s favor, Goldberg says.
“If it looks like the election is not going to be close, it will be more of an impetus for young folks not to vote. Some could think, ‘She’s going to win anyway. Why should I bother?’ I believe that will have somewhat of a dampening effect on turnout, but not huge,” he says. “Although Clinton has not generated the kind of excitement that Sanders did, support for her is increasing as millennials realize she’s the only viable alternative to Trump.”
As far as encouraging millennials to participate in the election regardless of trends and polls, Goldberg says, there are some interesting, relatively small organizations influencing particular groups. One example is Voto Latino, co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson, which is dedicated to registering young Latinos to vote and urging them to do so.
“These types of groups are targeting specific constituencies and mobilizing them in a different kind of way. Through social media and other digital platforms, they’re telling stories and getting out messages that make an impact on youth involvement,” Goldberg says. “You don’t want to think of millennials as a singular, cohesive entity, because that ignores their vast heterogeneity. One has to attend to what their particular passions and interests are and the particular ways in which they engage with each other.”
The desire to transform society and shape the world in which they’ll live is the fundamental driver of millennial participation in the political process, he notes: “It’s important to get out and try to change things, from both within and without. Youth have a role to play; all generations have a role to play. But to make changes, you have to get involved.”