Don’t call these two 22-year-olds ‘slacktivists.’ Unlike their peers, they are very politically active
They’re both young, 22. Politically it would seem they share nothing in common.
She is a Missouri Democrat — red-haired, a fearless environmentalist and self-described “super liberal” with LBJ, Kennedy, Mel Carnahan and Hillary Clinton campaign buttons pinned to her backpack.
On a recent Thursday, Bailey Hughes sat inside an office for the Cass County Democrats in a strip mall in Peculiar, Mo. She was working as a paid field organizer to drum up votes by phone for her candidate running for Congress as a Democrat in a district that in 2016 voted for Donald Trump by 70 percent .
“Hi, is Joy available?” Hughes said, taking a name from her calling list. “Hi, Joy. My name is Bailey and I’m working for Renee Hoagenson’s campaign for Congress. Have you heard about Renee?”
Riley Schumacher, on the other hand, is a conservative Kansas Republican. Tall and articulate, with boyish bangs, he is a University of Kansas senior from Olathe who is pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, not a big fan of Trump morally but believes he’s brought “respect” back to America. On that Thursday night, Schumacher sat at a table in Olathe helping to sign in members at an organizational meeting of the Johnson County Republican Party. They would make him a delegate.
“Why am I a Republican?” Schumacher said earlier. “At least, in the current environment that we are in, I see the Republicans as the only pro-American party.”
Hughes and Schumacher disagree on almost everything. Yet they share a common concern:
Will young voters like them — between ages 18 to 24 — actually turn out in big enough numbers to make a difference in state and national races Nov. 6? Or, will they stay home, content with having flexed their political muscles at Instagram-ready rallies and on Twitter without following up at the polls?
Young people, historically, fail to enter the voting booth. Only 40 percent vote in even the most heated presidential elections. Only 20 percent show up for midterms, according to the U.S. Census. In the last midterm election, in 2014, the 17.1 percent showing was the lowest in at least 50 years.
Yet much is transpiring to suggest that in this midterm, young voters could make a massive difference — if they show up. Both liberals and conservatives are calling on them to do so.
“The youth vote is extremely important,” said Mike Jones, the immediate past chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party. “The most important things for us in this election — and by ‘us,’ I mean Republicans — is voter turnout. When Obama was in office, it was easy to motivate Republicans to turn out to vote. But when we hold the House and we hold the Senate and we hold the presidency — when you hold all these things — voters become complacent.”
As a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows, grabbing the youth vote tends to help Democrats. Millennials, those ages 22 to 37, report leaning Democrat 59 percent, compared to 32 percent leaning Republican. Younger voters , the so-called post-millennial 18- to 22-year-olds, often lean even more liberal than their elders.
Aware of this, former President Barack Obama in September spoke to younger voters with urgency in a speech at the University of Illinois.
“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different,” he said. “The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”
He continued his plea this week in a new YouTube video titled “President Obama Doesn’t Have Time for These 7 Excuses Not to Vote,” offering advice such as, “If you really want to throw a wrench in their plans, throw them out.”
Across the youth spectrum, activists and entertainers have made getting out the vote a cause celebre.
On National Voter Registration Day, SnapChat provided a registration link for its nearly 200 million daily users. In early October, singer Taylor Swift, who for years has kept quiet about her political preferences, publicly endorsed two Democratic candidates. She told her 120 million Instagram followers that she was registering and urged them to do the same. Within a day, registrations rose by 65,000, according to the nonpartisan Vote.org. Rihanna and other stars followed suit with similar calls to their fans.
The #MarchForOurLives movement — formed by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after 17 of their classmates and teachers were gunned down there in February — is on a mission to elect lawmakers who support gun control. Speaking to its mostly young followers on its website, the message is clear: “It’s Time to Vote for Our Lives.”
Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager who supports liberal positions on climate change, immigration, education and health care, has set his organization, NextGen America, to turn out at least 250,000 new voters, often working on college campuses, in 11 battleground states, although neither Missouri nor Kansas is among them.
One progressive group, Acronym, on the site knockthe.vote isn’t above using mocking, reverse psychology to aim at the heart of young people’s “slacktivism” — the lazy, slacker version of activism, posting opinions or images online, but never voting. The group produced a video featuring one senior citizen after another patronizing the young. The text:
“Dear Young People,
“Don’t vote. Don’t vote. Everything is fine the way it is. Trump, that was us. He’s our guy. Tax cuts for the rich? Hell, yeah, I’m rich as f****. Climate change? That’s a you problem. I’ll be dead soon. Sure, school shootings are sad. But I haven’t been in a school for 50 years. I can’t keep track of which lives matter. Sure you don’t like it. You’ll like some meme on Instagram. If the weather is nice maybe you could go to one of those little marches. …”
It continues the taunt, saying that maybe young people will share the video on Facebook, but they won’t show up to vote because, “You never do. … We’ll be there. I’ll bet you won’t.”
The message may be getting through.
At Tufts University, outside Boston, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) polled 2,087 people ages 18 to 24. It found that 34 percent said they were “extremely likely” to vote in November.
Such a midterm turnout would be historic, at levels unseen since the 1960s and ‘70s when young people had serious skin in the political game, as draftees were shipped off to Vietnam. Passions were inflamed over civil and women’s rights.
The data analytics firm TargetSmart reported in September a 4 percent increase in the nationwide turnout of young voters — defined as ages 18 to 29 — in the 2018 August primaries, compared to the turnout in the 2014 primaries. In Kansas, it was up 3.5 percent; in Missouri, 2.8 percent.
“We looked into why people are motivated,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Tufts center. “The answer to that seems to be that they are really empowering each other. There is a lot of peer-to-peer engagement. They feel that, as a generation, they can do something together and make a dramatic change.”
For young Democrats, she said, the sense that their collective votes can make a difference has been reinforced by surprising Democratic primary victories.
In New York, newcomer 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic socialist, beat out 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley to become the front-runner in the race for the state‘s 14th Congressional District. In Kansas, first-time Democratic candidate Sharice Davids was the surprise winner for her party in the 3rd Congressional District, currently held by Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder. In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum shocked political insiders with his primary win as the Democratic candidate for governor.
“When people see that, young people start to realize, collectively, that maybe their single vote doesn’t count that much, but when they actually come out to vote together, they may have a pivotal impact,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
Both Hughes and Schumacher hope young people turn out in large numbers for their party’s candidates. Both states have candidates locked in tight races where a surge in youth votes could make a difference either way.
In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is tied in the polls with her challenger, the state’s Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley. In Kansas, Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach is running one point ahead of Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly in their battle for the governor’s chair, as independent candidate Greg Orman trails.
Hughes and Schumacher both predict a spike in young voters. But they are cautious in predicting how large that spike might be.
“I do believe there is going to be a bump this year,” Schumacher, the young Republican, said. “I don’t think it’s going to be drastic, but a gradual increase.”
Schumacher noted that he’ll absolutely vote, and so will his friends.
“I do see that a lot of people my age have been turned off on the whole world of politics,” he said. “It’s nasty. And I don’t think people want to get into that at this point. “
He continued, “I don’t really blame them. It’s hard to get into this political climate right now. … People have other things going on. It’s just not that enticing at this moment in our history.”
Hughes, the Democratic campaigner in Cass County, likewise thinks more young people will vote — or so they say when she gets to talk to them, which is not frequent. Cass County’s voting population is older. Only about 11 percent of its 100,000 residents are between the ages of 20 and 29, according to the U.S. Census.
When Hughes asks young people if they’re going to vote, they say yes, which she finds encouraging. She’s heartened by the massive amount of national outreach she sees.
But when she tries to convince them to do more, like knock on doors, or volunteer to make calls or to send out mailers, the reaction is often less enthusiastic. Younger would-be voters have often been criticized for their willingness to show up at protests, or to opine at length, writing political diatribes on Facebook. But when it comes to less photogenic jobs like volunteering, or even voting, they can often be no-shows.
“I haven’t talked to as many young people,” Hughes said. “But when I do, they say they’re going to show up, they’ll canvass or come write postcards. But that follow-through isn’t there. I’ll call them back, and they’ll hang up on me. They’ll be be like, I can’t. Sorry. I’m really busy with work or school, that type of thing.”
Hughes and Schumacher certainly sympathize. Until this year, they themselves weren’t as politically active as they are now.
“I know they’re probably very busy,” said Hughes, who has had to conscript her friends into making calls and sending out postcards. “I understand. I was in college. When I was in college, I didn’t do that much.”
It was only after college, that Hughes, who majored in political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, become deeply involved. She won the college’s Truman Bootstrap Award. It provided her a paid internship in Washington, D.C. , allowing her to turn her strong political sentiments into action. She worked in the office of Rep. Lacy Clay, from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District surrounding St. Louis.
“I was kind of late to the game,” Hughes said. “Then D.C. started to open my eyes.”
She sat in on House hearings regarding Peter Strzok, the FBI’s lead investigator into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“It just inspired me,” Hughes said. “I had to be more vocal.”
When she returned, she took a job as the Cass County field organizer for Hoagenson in her race against incumbent Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler.
Schumacher’s political life also turned around in the summer. It was happenstance. He was working as an Uber driver when he got a call to pick up a customer. It was Rochelle Bird, a pro-life candidate running as a Republican for the state House seat in southern Johnson County’s District 27.
By the time the drive was over, Schumacher said he would be willing to help her campaign after he took his LSAT, the Law School Admission Council Test, in June. The day of the exam, Bird texted Schumacher.
“She texted me ‘Good luck,’ “ Schumacher recalled. “That made me think she was for real.”
Schumacher worked throughout the summer, going door-to-door, speaking to constituents on Bird’s behalf. She would ultimately lose in the primary. But Schumacher’s fire for Republican politics had been ignited.
The results on Nov. 6 will determine whether other young people, fired up, show up at the polls in significant numbers.
Hughes is hopeful, and thinks a young turnout could be critical.
“They have more stake in this, I guess, because they’re going to be here,” she said. “If they want kids, their kids are going to be here and they are going to watch this all unfold. I truly believe that the fate of the Republic is at stake here.”
Schumacher is more doubtful.
“I don’t know if they’ll ever fully get involved,” he said of his peers. “The viewpoint is, older people, they know what they’re voting for and they know that their vote matters. I think when young people start to realize that, they’ll be voting too — just hopefully it’s not too late.”