The Big Read: Millennial voters see 2016 as bad joke

By Philip Rucker

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP

Jo Tongue doesn't have much time for politics, but the Hillary and Trump show is hard to tune out. And even harder to take. To this 31-year-old mother of two, with a third on the way, the presidency should be an honorable office, but instead she feels "bummed that we're at a place where it all feels like a joke."

"Watching Jimmy Fallon, I feel like, ugh, is this how we should start out? We're already mocking our president?"

Tongue says she is both "sad" and "defeated" and - in a world filled with shootings, bombings and financial strain - maintains scant hope that a new president will change any of it.

At a sports bar 1,800 miles away in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Aaron Stewart is shooting pool with a buddy and thinking the same thing. The pair doesn't just feel cut off from the current campaign, but from a political system they see as controlled by mysterious networks, greased by money and off-limits to people like them.

"I'm not really a conspiracy theorist, but the system is corrupt," says Stewart, 21, who works at a convenience store. He draws a $1 bill from his wallet, holds it up to the bar's faint light and declares, "This little piece of paper tells me what I can and cannot do."

At the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in California, the summer interns are up on the issues. But Dominic Cicerone has a similar sense of foreboding. For him, the big issue is his own safety - he was afraid to go to the July 4 fireworks at Fisherman's Wharf because the Islamic State had released a video claiming San Francisco as a target - and neither candidate is easing his concerns.

Jo and Wes Tongue with their daughters, Evie, 4, and Lu, 3. The Tongues are disillusioned with the presidential campaign and undecided about which candidate to support. Photo / The Washington Post
Jo and Wes Tongue with their daughters, Evie, 4, and Lu, 3. The Tongues are disillusioned with the presidential campaign and undecided about which candidate to support. Photo / The Washington Post

"These things are no longer happening in other places in the world; they're now happening right here in our own communities - and that scares me," says Cicerone, 20, a student at Humboldt State University. "To be completely honest, I don't trust either one with foreign policy."

Polling suggests that the millennial generation will act much the same this November as it did four and eight years ago - by voting heavily for the Democratic nominee, though with a considerable share supporting a third-party candidate.

But in interviews this past week with more than 70 young voters in nine states from diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and careers, it is clear their mood is decidedly different from previous elections. Despite their varied lives, most of those interviewed shared a disgust with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump so intense that it is pushing many beyond disillusionment and toward apathy.

The message coming from America's rising generation is ominous and it carries ramifications after the November election. No matter who wins, they don't think the next president will address their concerns or, even, have an impact on their lives. They have grim expectations for their government and have stopped looking to Washington for solutions. Why? Because they see it as too gridlocked - and its leaders too corrupted.

These voters were embarrassed and ashamed that Clinton and Trump are the best the country has to offer. Of the more than 70 millennials interviewed by The Washington Post, only a small fraction sounded genuinely enthusiastic about a candidate.

Though a few people voiced admiration for Clinton, most talked about both her and Trump in searing, caustic words: Super villain. Evil. Chameleon. Racist. Criminal. Egomaniac. Narcissist. Sociopath. Liar. Lying cutthroat. Panderer. Word salad. Willy-nilly. Douche. Joker. Troll. Oompa Loompa. Sad. Absurd. Horrifying. Dishonest. Disgusting. Dangerous. Disaster.

The election "seems like it's a prank, but it's not a prank," said Kyle Forster, 21, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.

Wes Sumrell, 32, a longshoreman in Virginia, says he will vote for Donald Trump but does not believe he can be the country's 'savior'. Photo / The Washington Post
Wes Sumrell, 32, a longshoreman in Virginia, says he will vote for Donald Trump but does not believe he can be the country's 'savior'. Photo / The Washington Post

Wes Sumrell, 32, who enlisted in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now works as a longshoreman in Norfolk, Virginia, said he plans to vote for Trump. But his enthusiasm is tempered by what he sees as the mogul's unrealistic promises.

"He's doing the same thing Obama did - building people up to think he can do all these things," Sumrell said. "But the nature of the position is that you can't satisfy everyone. I don't think he'll be the savior he claims to be."

The presidential campaign is drawing global interest, but young people from Virginia to Silicon Valley - students and teachers, shopkeepers and baristas, engineers and lawn mowers - feel isolated from it. Their Facebook feeds are cluttered with political headlines and outrage. They see snippets of Clinton and Trump on Snapchat. Some of them follow daily developments on news websites. But they don't hear anything from Clinton or Trump that sounds like solutions for their own challenges.

"It's kind of a scary time to have such a wishy-washy presidential election," said David Searle, 25, a software engineer in Portland, Maine.

Some young people said they are so uninspired that they're just going to sit this one out.

"I'm not going to vote. I'm just not," said Dustin McKindsey, 26, a handyman in Madison, Wisconsin. "This is the first time I've felt that way. . . . A choice between two stones that'll sink."

Many young people said they are mistrustful and wary of both parties and inclined to disaffiliate. "I don't see the point of the parties - just another way to divide us," said Casey Bunn, 21, an automotive repair worker in Goldsboro.

These sentiments represent a dramatic shift from eight years ago. With his cool charisma and change message, Barack Obama inspired legions of young voters to volunteer for him. Many poured into the streets of America's cities to celebrate his victory with tears and toasts.

Aaron Johnson, 32, a barista and musician in Seattle, predicted that would not happen this year.

"You have a choice between a douche and a turd sandwich," he said. "That's from 'South Park.' This is a lesser-of-two-evils vote. We'll be a laughingstock if Trump becomes president. With Hillary, we'll stomach it for four or eight years and live through it."

For any politician, millennials are a prized block. Roughly 1 in 6 voters have been younger than 30 in the past two presidential elections, according to Census Bureau data. This spring, millennials up to age 34 surpassed baby boomers as the nation's largest living generation, numbering 75.4 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

For Clinton, millennial outreach is a cornerstone of her strategy. She trumpets her plan to make college debt-free and last week visited Raygun, a millennial-owned T-shirt manufacturer in Iowa, to promote entrepreneurship. And her campaign is prolific on social media - making behind-the-scenes videos for Snapchat and designing Clinton-inspired pantsuit outfits for Bitmoji users.

Trump is not ceding this demographic. He talks openly about gay rights - a greater priority for millennials - and his 34-year-old daughter, Ivanka, has championed his cause with her peers.

The millennial generation is loosely defined as people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, so adults up to age 35. Political pollsters measure the demographic as voters between the ages of 18 and 29.

These voters favor Clinton over Trump by nearly 2 to 1, 57 percent to 32 percent, according to an average of the last twonational surveys by The Washington Post and ABC News. That is similar to Obama's 23-percentage point margin over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

These polls show Obama's job approval rating at 68 percent among young adults, far higher than overall, and 58 percent of them said they think Clinton better understands their problems than does Trump.

But both are deeply polarizing with younger Americans, just as they are with the broader population. Seventy-two percent said they have an unfavorable view of Trump, while 49 percent said the same of Clinton. An overwhelming majority - 68 percent - said they are dissatisfied with the choice of Clinton or Trump.

One-quarter of younger voters said in the two Post-ABC polls that they would support a third-party candidate. In a four-way race, Clinton leads among younger voters with 43 percent, followed by Trump at 25 percent, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson at 16 percent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 9 percent.

Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who researches millennial attitudes and wrote "The Selfie Vote," said: "We're at a depressing moment where it's unlikely that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will ever get these voters to love them. Instead, they're trying to scare them, saying, 'You can't vote for him because he'll nuke countries,' or, 'You can't vote for her or like her because she's a liar.' "

So it is that the impressions many millennials have formed of the candidates are based almost entirely on issues of character, as opposed to their policy prescriptions or ideologies.

April McGuffie, 24, who serves in the Navy and is stationed in Norfolk, said she doesn't have "the millennial mind-set." She is more aligned with Trump yet has a hard time imagining him as president.

"Trump is acting like we're in high school again," McGuffie said. "He has good ideas, but it seems like he's constantly on the attack."

Polls show a majority of the country's voters want change in Washington, but many young people interviewed said things are not so bad as they may seem. Gay men and lesbians can legally marry. Health care is more accessible. Jobs are more available. Society has become more diverse and tolerant. To them, that is progress.

Parker Grimes, 20, a microbiology student from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, recalled talking about Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan with his roommates the other day.

"We said, 'You know what? This place is pretty great,' " Grimes said. "We go to UW, a pretty decent school, and my family is OK, and a lot of things did get done in the last eight years."

Behind the counter at Bean Cycle Roasters in Fort Collins, Colorado, Derrick Wessels described himself as only "marginally unhappy." Asked whether he thought Clinton would be a change agent, the 24-year-old barista said, "I don't think she'll cause a whole lot of change - and that's why I'm voting for her. I think Trump will change things for the worse."

Derrick Wessels, 24, a barista in Colorado, says he does not think either presidential candidate can bring positive change to the country. Photo / The Washington Post
Derrick Wessels, 24, a barista in Colorado, says he does not think either presidential candidate can bring positive change to the country. Photo / The Washington Post

Over and over again, young voters said they had hoped one of the candidates would inspire them. Some of them cast their first ballots for Obama and said they long to feel those same emotions of pride and hope for someone else.

Instead, this summer they have grown disenchanted with the whole process.

"This election is a complete joke," lamented Donovan DeWeese, 25, a pantry chef at a steakhouse in Fort Collins.

"This is my future," he said. "When I have kids, this will be something they remember me for. When my parents were this age, they had candidates like JFK and Ronald Reagan. These candidates we have now are not inspiring."

Few of the young women interviewed said they felt moved by the historic nature of Clinton's presidency. Britni Smith, 29, said, "I wanted the first woman president in office, but then everything came to the surface - the email scandal, how much her positions fluctuate on really important issues."

"I don't think she's super trustworthy," added Smith, who works in retail and backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) in the Democratic primary campaign. "She's kind of a social chameleon. She'll tell any group she's standing in front of what they want to hear."

To Claire Secrist, 23, who was raised in a Republican household in Fort Collins, Clinton's "life is a lie." Secrist, who manages a clothing store, said: "It doesn't matter that she'll be the first woman president. She should be in jail."

Claire Secrist, 23, photographed with her boyfriend, Jarrad Doolittle, 22, thinks Hillary Clinton belongs in jail. Photo / The Washington Post
Claire Secrist, 23, photographed with her boyfriend, Jarrad Doolittle, 22, thinks Hillary Clinton belongs in jail. Photo / The Washington Post

It does not help that Clinton and Trump, at 68 and 70 respectively, are two of the oldest presidential candidates ever.

Asked whom he might vote for, Noah Mack, 20, a junior political science major at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, exhaled in frustration.

"I don't know," he said, looking out at a glistening Lake Mendota. "Probably Hillary, but I don't particularly like her. Hate Trump. I really don't like Trump because he's obviously incredibly racist, and his agendas, I just don't agree with. He's out of the Stone Age. So is she, too, in her own way - not age-wise, but in terms of values."

Sanders, 74, is even closer to the Stone Age than the two nominees, yet he connected with millennials. They saw him as authentic and principled. In the Democratic primaries where exit polls were conducted, millennials supported Sanders over Clinton 71 percent to 28 percent, even though Clinton won many more votes overall.

"Bernie did spark a fire with a lot of us," said Christopher Lee, 22, a nursing student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "We thought, 'Wow, our generation is actually going to get someone who has our values and understand that we want to see change.' Then it all went away. Hillary and Trump. . . . It's like we're reverting to the country before Obama."

This generation's support for Sanders grew so intense that Allison McCartney recalled having to hide her Clinton favoritism.

"People who liked Clinton or thought she had anything worthy to say kind of had to hide in a digital hole for a while to let it blow over. Any time you posted anything vaguely pro-Clinton, it was like immediate swamping - 'You're a horrible person,' 'She's a criminal,' " said McCartney, 26, a recent Stanford University graduate who works at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

But not every millennial has been so engaged. John Bynum, a Democrat, recalled eight years ago feeling excited about the possibility of the first black president.

"I remember following closely, watching the debates and everything," said Bynum, 30, a Navy logistics specialist in Norfolk, Virginia. But not this time. He said he will vote for Clinton, but that's about the extent of his participation. "I've slacked off a lot this election."

John Bynum, 30, a Navy logistics specialist, says he is not as interested in this presidential campaign as was in 2008. Photo / The Washington Post
John Bynum, 30, a Navy logistics specialist, says he is not as interested in this presidential campaign as was in 2008. Photo / The Washington Post

Some right-leaning millennials thought they had a standard-bearer in Marco Rubio - until Trump effectively ate the youthful Florida senator for lunch. One of them is Branden Windle, 27, who lives in Austin and co-founded a company that sells cowboy boots.

Windle sounded chagrined and at times sheepish as he explained his political evolution. In 2008, as a college student in California, he was "super engaged" with John McCain's campaign. This time around, he supported Rubio in the primary. In November, however, he doesn't even plan to vote.

"The more I engage in this election, the more apathetic I become," he said. "I'm reluctant to talk politics and more reluctant to identify as a Republican. . . . I'm 100-percent sure I'm not a sexist or racist or bigot or intolerant, but I feel like identifying with the Republican Party makes you more associated with those things."

The 2016 campaign risks making millennials - mistrustful, alienated and disappointed - a lost generation in politics.

Jessie Nelson, 21, was a star wrestler in high school in Stoughton, Wis. Then he worked as a process operator at a chemical company. Now he's unemployed in Madison. Nelson follows politics on Snapchat. A whir of images. The one that stuck with him was of Sanders marching for civil rights in the 1960s.

"I'm afraid when I watch Trump," said Nelson. "He's openly racist against so many people. With the little knowledge I have about politics, I know someone like that shouldn't be funded or supported. To think millions of people think he's a good idea, it's scary."

"Hillary," he added, "I don't know. You hear the news, and you wonder why either of these people should be president. I see disguised evil."

- Washington Post

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