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Op-Ed: Millennials and 2016 Elections -- An Opportunity Not to Be Wasted

Some members of the millennial generation are turning out to watch the debates, and not just for free food and a chance to hang out with friends

elizabeth matto
Elizabeth C. Matto

The 2016 election season has already confounded numerous predictions but an additional -- and most welcome – surprise may be in the offing. The active interest shown by Rutgers students in the early presidential debates suggests that the millennial generation may finally be ready for full participation in the political process.

Certainly, the dismal rates of youth voter registration and turnout in 2014 (46.7 percent and 19.9 percent, respectively) offer enormous room for improvement. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reports that the 2014 youth turnout was the lowest in 40 years. But this fall, we’ve been given a reason to hope that change may be on the way.

In our ongoing mission to engage students in the political process and prepare them for active citizenship, the Eagleton Institute of Politics convened two debate watches in recent weeks -- one for the Republican primary debate in September and another for the first Democratic debate. Although debate watches at which rooms full of students view the televised coverage are regular occurrences during general campaigns, we thought we’d look for potential interest this fall and hold student-viewing parties for the primary contests.

In each instance, student interest has been astounding, with triple the number of RSVPs we got for past debate watches. Even more surprising: Most students who indicated that they would attend actually did -- a good number of them staying to the bitter end of the more than three-hour Republican debate.

A cynic might guess that many students come for the free food or the promise of extra credit from some professors, but there could more at play here. Both in the classroom and around campus, we notice students paying attention to the campaigns and looking to get involved. Not only are they watching the debates, but we’ve registered hundreds to vote since the start of the semester.

Chalking up student interest to the media attention surrounding the Trump candidacy is convenient, and dismissing it as short-lived is predictable. Media hype may have gotten students through the door, but something’s making them stay, and it would be a lost opportunity not to do all we can to keep them engaged through the 2016 election and into the future.

As has been widely reported, the millennial generation (those born after approximately 1980) is the largest in American history. Accordingly, with each election, a growing proportion of the eligible voting population is composed of millennials. As census bureau analysis makes clear though, this potential electoral power is not being put to use. In the past five presidential elections, younger voters have “under-voted” -- that is, voted at lower rates than their share of the eligible voting population. In contrast, older voters “over-vote” or vote at higher rates than their share of the eligible voting population. This may explain why candidates seem to talk less about student loan debt and more about Social Security and Medicare.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Plenty of research demonstrates that mobilization by candidates and campaigns positively affects voter turnout -- even for younger voters. When candidates reach out to young adults, their likelihood of voting is enhanced; CIRCLE research even suggests that better mobilization of young adults by the Romney campaign in 2012 could have resulted in his victory. There’s also a growing body of literature and evidence-based best practices for educators who want to incorporate political learning opportunities into classroom instruction. Not only can it be done in a nonpartisan way, but also it can enhance the likelihood of students’ electoral participation in years to come. Parents play a role, too, when they model news consumption, political discussion, and regular voting.

Of course, it’s up to young adults too. Sure, students watch the debates for the spectacle, and some come to watch parties for the free food, but they can also listen carefully to the candidates. Are the presidential candidates talking to the nearly 50 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 30? Are they discussing policies that will impact this sizable portion of the population as they head into the job market, try to pay off student loans, and build a future?

Clearly, RSVP rates lack much explanatory or predictive power. There’s plenty of research, though, on what can be done by candidates, teachers, the public, and even young adults themselves to enhance youth political participation. To dismiss interest now would be a wasted opportunity -- something our democracy can ill afford.

Elizabeth C. Matto, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor and director of the Youth Political Participation Program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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