Government

Young voices becoming young voters would buck history

But postmillenials eventually will outnumber baby boomers

Students from Iowa City High approach the Old Capitol on the University of Iowa campus after walking out of class Feb 19 to protest gun violence and call for gun control. Millennials and the postmillennial generation, like those in the Iowa City walkout, have become politically active but experts say it’s still unclear if activism will translate into votes. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Students from Iowa City High approach the Old Capitol on the University of Iowa campus after walking out of class Feb 19 to protest gun violence and call for gun control. Millennials and the postmillennial generation, like those in the Iowa City walkout, have become politically active but experts say it’s still unclear if activism will translate into votes. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — They marched for their lives, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But will they vote?

The March for Our Lives, a series of demonstrations across the country to bring attention to calls for gun control laws, have put young people at the forefront of U.S. politics. Students from a Florida high school where 17 people were shot to death in February have led the charge, and young people across the country have followed their lead.

The central march last week in Washington, D.C., drew more than 200,000 people; smaller marches were held across the country, including throughout Iowa.

“We’re seeing them side more with Democrats, but they don’t exactly have warm feelings toward Democrats. They dislike both parties evenly. There’s kind of a dissatisfaction with politics."

- Greg Wolf, assistant professor of political science at Drake University

These young people have flexed their political muscle through public demonstrations and TV appearances. Many on the verge of being old enough to vote seemed ready for the chance.

“I don’t really trust the adults so far. I think the students are the ones that have been the most aware and taking the most action, honestly,” said 17-year-old City High student Bihotza James-Lejarcegui at a Feb. 19 walkout and rally in Iowa City. “We’re the ones that are going to have to vote in the future, so it’s really important that we’re aware of things right now and that we’re informed so that when we can vote that we make the right decisions.”

Whether the young marchers now will influence public policy by casting ballots remains to be seen. But doing so would reverse a decades-old truism: young people do not vote.

Millennials, defined by the Pew Research Center as Americans born between 1981 and 1996, are on the verge of overtaking baby boomers as the most populous generation.

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And a U.S. Health and Human Services survey shows the postmillennial generation — those born in or after 1997, like the high school marchers — is even larger.

Using federal census data, Pew projects millennials will surpass the boomers by 2019, when projections say there will be 73 million millennials and 72 million boomers.

How soon and to what degree that will impact U.S. politics and elections remains to be seen, experts say, in large part because, historically, young people do not vote at rates as high as older generations.

Just 46 percent of millennials said they voted in 2016, according to Pew data. That withers in comparison with the 63 percent of boomers who said they voted, 63 percent of Generation X (born rough 1964 to early 1980s), or 69 percent of the silent generation (born 1925-45) and 73 percent of the greatest generation (born 1910-24).

Some of those young people are hopeful that the recent marches are an indication their generations are prepared to buck that history and turn out at the polls.

“I’ve been to a lot of rallies since 2016, and for the first time I looked out in the crowd and the majority of faces I saw were under 25. That gave me a lot of hope,” said Isabella O’Connor, a student at Des Moines Roosevelt High School who spoke at the March for Our Lives event in Des Moines.

O’Connor will turn 18 in October, just in time to vote in November’s midterm election. She also is running for class president.

Addison Parrish, a 20-year-old West Des Moines man who is attending California Polytechnic State University, said he, too, is hopeful the recent activism by young people means the generation will be similarly active in the upcoming elections.

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“Historically, young people haven’t voted and I think in a similar sense young people have been involved in major movements and marches for justice and things like this, but historically it doesn’t translate to numbers for youth votes,” Parrish said. “But I think this is a change.”

Millennials, who are between 22 and 37 years old in 2018, could overtake boomers at the polls by the next presidential election, in 2020, elections experts said.

“I think 2020 has all the signs of being a very important year for them. If a candidate emerges who can really speak to millennials as a generation, I think they can come out in droves, similarly to how Barack Obama was able to captivate millennials in 2018,” said David Andersen, a political-science professor at Iowa State University who has researched the subject. “If there is a young candidate who really speaks to them, 2020 has all the hallmarks of being a millennials year.”

If they do, it could represent a shift in U.S. politics and the types of issues that dominate political debate, Andersen said. He said classic issues like tax policy and abortion could give way to issues like student loan debt, net neutrality or legalized marijuana.

And millennials are far more likely than any other generation to say discrimination is the main barrier to blacks’ progress, and that immigrants strengthen the United States, according to Pew data.

Millennials tend to be more liberal, according to Pew data: nearly six in 10 millennials affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, compared with just less than half of boomers and just 43 percent of the silent generation, which are the most Republican age groups.

Millennial women, in particular, lean left: 70 percent affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, according to Pew, compared with roughly half of millennial men.

However, experts cautioned, many millennials, while liberal ideologically, hesitate to identify with either major political party.

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“We’re seeing them side more with Democrats, but they don’t exactly have warm feelings toward Democrats. They dislike both parties evenly,” said Greg Wolf, an assistant professor of political science at Drake University. “There’s kind of a dissatisfaction with politics. ... They don’t like what they’ve seen when they’re coming of age, politically, and I think a lot of them don’t like the two-party system.”

“Millennials are ideological, but maybe not partisan,” Anderson said. “They are strongly attached to the Democratic Party right now ... but many more claim independence from the parties. They tend to have progressive viewpoints, though if you listen closely to what they say, sometimes they sound conservative.”

One thing is clear: Millennials do not approve of President Donald Trump. Just 27 percent of millennials approve of the president’s job performance, according to Pew. That’s far and away the lowest approval rating among the different generations; 46 percent of the silent generation and 44 percent of boomers approve of Trump’s performance.

That could factor into the 2020 election, assuming Trump runs for a second term, and assuming millennials and other young people vote.

At the March for Our Lives, there were voter registration drives to help ensure a higher youth turnout this fall and in 2020. Many of those who attended, Wolf noted, were previously politically active. The challenge for organizers and political parties and groups is to identify those who are new to political activism.

“My speech primarily revolved around rallying voters to not rest on their laurels after the march,” Parrish said. “My message was real change takes real work. ... Progress is not accomplished in one march or one election cycle.”

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