For Young Voters, 'Hope and Change' Is Dead

A group of 20-something voters illustrates young people’s consternation with their political choices this year.

Young voters at an Iowa rally for Barack Obama in October 2007 (Andy Sullivan / Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA—There was remarkably little idealism in the roomful of undecided young voters that convened here on Wednesday.

Asked to find a picture that represents America, the participants in this focus group—eight suburban voters in their 20s, with varying backgrounds—chose negative portraits: a circus, a frightened person, people looking at their phones instead of each other, "Hands Up Don't Shoot." One picked a photo of rapturous Trump supporters at a rally and said it reminded him of Germans welcoming Adolf Hitler.

Eight years ago, young voters thronged rapturous rallies for then-candidate Barack Obama. Earlier this year, they flocked to Bernie Sanders. But as Election Day nears, the natural idealism of youth is finding little political expression. Instead, if this group is any indication—and polls suggest it is—young people are just as bummed out as the rest of America about their choices in the presidential race.

"I wouldn't say I'm excited about anyone," said Tim, a 26-year-old white man who works as a business consultant.

It's not that they're pessimistic, necessarily. They all have jobs and seemingly stable lives; they expressed hope for their future prospects. But their evaluation of the candidates was grim.

Donald Trump: "evil," "bully," "bigot," "misogynist." Hillary Clinton: "shady," "corrupt," "liar," "untrustworthy."

That's not to say they were equally negative on both major-party candidates. Of the eight people in this group, convened by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, just one—a 26-year-old white woman—was considering voting for Trump. A college graduate who works as a nanny and didn't want her name used, the woman described herself as a pro-choice former Democrat who's become overwhelmingly afraid of terrorism, but has concerns about Trump's temperament.

Of the other seven focus-group members, none were considering a Trump vote. But neither were they sold on Clinton. Asked to describe her in a few words, they tended to pair positive and negative attributes: "Shady but knowledgeable," said a male Asian-American medical student. "Hardworking, corrupt, real-deal politician," said a female African American office worker.

Their attitudes are in keeping with polls that find that Clinton's support from the younger generation is lacking, despite young voters' distaste for Trump. As Ron Brownstein recently noted, Millennials' skepticism about Clinton—and whether she can convert them—could be the election's deciding factor. Recognizing that fact, Clinton has recently redoubled her outreach to Millennials, giving a speech aimed at the cohort here last month. She’s also aggressively deploying surrogates ranging from Sanders to John Legend, who is scheduled to appear at college campuses in Ohio this weekend urging students to register and vote.

Some liberal Millennials have so internalized Sanders' onetime critique of Clinton's character—that she’s just another cog in a corrupt machine—that they are implacably opposed to her. That was the case for one focus-group participant, Amanda, a 27-year-old human-resources worker who's also a single mother enrolled in a holistic-health certificate program. Amanda's description of Clinton: "Bitch, liar, false." She's planning to vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Amanda's attitudes were partly driven by disillusion with Obama, whom she voted for. "I'm just not pumped about what he did while he was in office," she said. "I feel like a lot of stuff crumbled while he's been in there." Her excitement about Obamacare, she said, has given way to dismay at her rising health-insurance premiums and deductibles.

But the bulk of the group seemed open to Clinton despite their misgivings. Tim, the 26-year-old business consultant, was the group member who said Trump reminded him of Hitler. A registered Republican, he didn't agree with Clinton's political positions, but he regarded Trump as a "bigot" who would embarrass the nation. Viewing the third-party options as a waste of his vote, Tim admitted he wasn't really undecided, but wanted to keep his options open in case Clinton stumbled.

A 28-year-old African American man who works in healthcare said he disliked Clinton’s tendency to say one thing in public and another in private. He pointed to her description of some Trump supporters as “deplorables,” saying, “It’s not necessarily that I disagree with her comments, but I feel like, as a presidential nominee, you're running to be president of everyone.” But he gave Clinton the edge on all the issues important to him—student debt, terrorism, jobs, health care, and climate.

Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who has made inroads with Millennial voters but seen his overall vote share decline in recent polling, had no supporters in this group. Virtually all the participants were aware of Johnson's recent gaffes and said they viewed him as unqualified.

The prevailing sentiment was one of grudging capitulation to a Clinton vote. "Clinton by default," said Alex, a 26-year-old Asian-American paralegal, looking pained. "That's the only choice I have."

It's a far cry from the thrill many young people felt casting votes for Obama or Sanders. But a vote is a vote, and Clinton will surely take it.