Government & Politics

For first-time voters, an unprecedented election with unusual choices

First-time voters find themselves confronted with one of the most unusual presidential elections in history.
First-time voters find themselves confronted with one of the most unusual presidential elections in history. The Associated Press

Isiah Bowie shook his head and sighed when he was asked whom he supported in the Kansas caucuses.

“Bernie Sanders,” the 19-year-old from Overland Park said.

Now Bowie, a soon-to-be sophomore at the University of Kansas, isn’t too sure whom to vote for. He follows politics closely and identifies as a libertarian. He’s deciding between Hillary Clinton, whom he dislikes, and Gary Johnson, who he doesn’t think has a real chance at winning. One thing is sure: He isn’t voting for Donald Trump.

Bowie is in a situation that many first-time voters are in: They aren’t content with this election’s choices.

In an election that seems unprecedented with such high stakes, some first-time voters like Bowie may end up voting for a candidate as a second choice.

But at least one politically involved millennial isn’t too worried about whether those first-time voters will show up.

Andrew Miller, chairman of the Missouri Young Democrats, said young Sanders supporters who don’t support Clinton are a minority.

“To watch Donald Trump get up there and say things that are just so incredibly bigoted and hateful, we can read between the lines of what he’s saying,” Miller said. “I think that’s going to drive young people to the polls.”

Miller, 24 of Raymore, said that unlike most other young Democrats he knows, he supported Clinton from the beginning. And he concedes some Democrats aren’t as enthusiastic in their support of the nominee but thinks they will still vote for her in November.

“I don’t feel like there are real Bernie-or-bust people in a significant number,” said Miller, who just graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a master’s degree in public administration.

Democratic drift

Beth Vonnahme, a political science professor at UMKC, said younger voters have continued to shift toward the Democratic Party in recent elections. She said President Barack Obama received 60 percent of the 18-to-29 vote in 2012, and Clinton is currently leading Trump by about 20 percent among young voters.

Only 34 percent of young voters lean Republican, compared to 50 percent who lean Democrat, according to the Pew Research Center.

During the Democratic primaries, 35 percent of young voters consistently supported Sanders during primaries, and only 11 percent consistently supported Clinton, while the rest switched from one candidate to the other (43 percent) or remained undecided (10 percent), according to the Pew Research Center.

But the same poll, released July 25, shows that despite prevailing narratives, an overwhelming 90 percent of Sanders supporters in the primaries plan to support Clinton in the general election over Trump.

“I think a lot of the media hype about millennials costing Clinton the election is overrated,” said Patrick Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Miller still thinks Clinton will have to work for young votes.

“If you’re the Clinton campaign, you need to work multiple angles there,” Miller said. “You need to communicate that voting for a third party is not a strategic choice.”

Yet some local young voters are still thinking about third-party candidates.

Hannah Eades said she plans to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. A friend, Kiley Wagener, also 18 from Grain Valley, said she’s voting for Clinton.

After securing the Democratic nomination for president on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton made a surprise video appearance thanking her supporters for helping her make history. The presidential candidate will address the Democratic National Convention in

Young turnout

About 49 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 are eligible to vote, and that population of voters is larger than the 45 million eligible voters over 65, said Felicia Sullivan, a senior researcher at the Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The most crucial question with young voters in any election is whether they will show up.

In 2008, young voter turnout was at 51 percent. It dipped in 2012 to 45 percent. Older voting blocs have turnout ranging from 60 to 72 percent.

Vonnahme expects young voters to go to the polls in about the same numbers as in 2012 and 2008.

“This is likely to continue unless there is a huge mobilization push or unless both candidates alienate young voters,” Vonnahme said.

KU’s Miller said young voters in Kansas aren’t expected to have an impact on the presidential election, but they will play a more crucial role in statewide legislative races. He said Kansas tends to skew Republican either way, and more young voters in Kansas vote Republican than they do nationally.

Sullivan agreed the importance of youth voting is heightened at the local level. She said policies that have the biggest effect on young voters are often set at the state level, such as education policies.

“Here’s a chunk of people who have interests in how policies affect them, and if they’re not voting, those policies won’t reflect their needs,” Sullivan said.

Barriers

But Sullivan said campaigns are not as likely to invest time in appealing to younger voters because they don’t have the established turnout patterns of older voting blocs.

She compared it to not having a credit score, and campaigns are not as likely to invest limited resources convincing voters who may not show up to the polls.

Sullivan said there are many barriers that prevent young people from voting. First-time voters often get overwhelmed when trying to understand how to register, where to vote and when they should vote.

She said many young people have the idea that even if they understand how to register and where to vote, they shouldn’t vote if they don’t have a perfect and complete understanding of the issues and the candidates.

“They don’t want to vote because they’re afraid of making the wrong choice,” Sullivan said.

For disenfranchised young voters, the barriers can be even higher. Sullivan said many view young voters as college students, but 40 percent of young people eligible to vote have never set foot on a college campus, she said.

Bowie, who is approaching his first vote, said he doesn’t feel cheated by not having a candidate he’s enthusiastic about. He said those are the candidates the primary voters selected, and he still gets a say in how it all turns out.

But Eades doesn’t like the major-party candidates and said it felt strange to have such an odd election for her first time voting.

“I’m almost disappointed this is our first election, but I’m still really excited to vote,” Eades said.

Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination on the last night of the RNC, promising to fight for Americans, restore security, improve trade deals, and ultimately 'Making America First Again.'

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