Political parties targeting elusive voters — Millennials
The issues that matter most to Millennials — student loan debt, jobs, climate change — are forcing Republicans and Democrats alike to push the boundaries of technology to attract America’s youngest voters, a likely key to the 2016 elections.
For East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell, 34, one of the youngest members of the House of Representatives, that meant sitting down with a crowd of Chabot Community College students in Hayward recently and talking about his own, still-unpaid $100,000 student loan debt. The discussion, live-streamed on Periscope, was designed to draw a new audience to Swalwell, who has been tapped by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to serve as the face of Future Forum — a drive by the Democratic Party to reach Millennials.
“If we’re going to represent the future, we have to listen to the future,” Swalwell said.
For Garrett Johnson, a co-founder of Silicon Valley-based Lincoln Labs — the GOP-leaning “liberty-believing” tech and innovation organization — it meant persuading Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose 2016 White House campaign is reaching out to younger, libertarian-leaning voters, to headline Saturday’s “Disrupting Democracy” conference in San Francisco, home to tech giants like Twitter, Salesforce.com and Uber.
On both sides of the aisle, the efforts underscore a tech-fueled effort to catch the attention of the largest generation in U.S. history — the estimated one-third of all Americans born between 1980 and the mid-2000s. This voting segment has been frustratingly elusive and was largely disinterested in the 2014 midterm elections.
A recent poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard showed that just 1 in 5 voters younger than 30 considered themselves to be “politically engaged” or active, nearly 90 percent said they had never attended a political rally or demonstration, and just 68 percent of those eligible to vote said they were registered in the last election.
In California, the numbers were even lower: A UC Davis survey found that less that 9 percent of the eligible California voters under 30 cast ballots in the 2014 midterm election.
In an effort to electrify that audience, and craft political messages that resonate with Millennials, startup Brigade, the nonpartisan tech firm funded by billionaire Sean Parker partnered with Lincoln Labs to bring Paul to San Francisco Saturday, where he is to announce the opening of a South of Market campaign office.
“Apathy is not the issue,” says Matt Mahan, CEO of Brigade, which aims to boost civic engagement. “Millennials are better informed, better connected and more exposed to news,” in a wider variety and deeper form, than their parents ever were, he said.
But there is “a skepticism or even a cynicism problem,” he said, with many Millennials doubting that “their vote is relevant or impactful — it’s 'it doesn’t matter — why do it?’”
The Democrats’ Future Forum, which involves “14 of the youngest members of the House on the Democratic side,” Swalwell says, is one answer to those concerns. He calls it a “listening effort” that aims to meet with younger voters in a variety of venues — from traditional learning institutions such as Chabot to tech-centric locations like the Impact Hub in San Francisco, a communal office space for entrepreneurs.
The legislators are fanning out across the country, he said, talking about issues that Millennials care about — student loans, access to entrepreneurship, climate change — with the main goal to “crowd-source good ideas and then take them back to Congress and offer solutions that can help young people.”
Swalwell had students nodding in agreement at Chabot when he told frankly personal stories about his own difficulties paying for college.
“I remember the number of odd jobs I had to take,” said Swalwell, “And getting that call from the purser’s office saying, 'This is your last warning. You will not be able to take classes until you make payment,’”’ as students nodded in understanding.
But his work also clearly has an eye on helping Democrats in 2016.
Swalwell recently posted on Medium, a blog platform, a piece entitled “Rand Paul Wants You To Think He’s Good For Young People,” in which he argues that the GOP presidential candidate doesn’t reflect Millennial concerns because he has opposed legislation to allow refinancing of student loans and supported a budget that drastically slashes funding for Pell grants.
Millennials say they appreciate the outreach, and many of them appear to be ready to listen — to both sides.
“What worries me the most is that, in an election, it’s all talk,” said Jonathan Galindo, a Chabot College psychology major who came to watch Swalwell’s address. “This time, I want them to actually do something.”
He said he’s a Democrat and leaning toward Hillary Rodham Clinton — but wants to hear more from Republicans like Paul, whose father, Ron Paul, who has been a presidential candidate numerous times, also appealed to him.
Kate Dolorito, a political science major at Chabot, said she’s open to hearing all candidates, but they better be ready to deliver on jobs and education, issues that will define the future.
“I want them to represent and serve the people,” she said. “I want them to fulfill the promise they make.”