Nobody 2016: The millennial voters are engaged, not apathetic — but the candidates are pathetic

The growing 'Nobody 2016' campaign shows maligned millennials are eager to vote — just not for Trump or Clinton

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 15, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators dance as hundreds of protesters gather during a May Day labor rally    (Getty/Monika Graff)
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators dance as hundreds of protesters gather during a May Day labor rally (Getty/Monika Graff)

The voting day question of this election hasn’t been whether Donald Trump will quit or whether Hillary Clinton will be indicted; it has been whether millennial voters will turn out and for whom. Millennials — 18- to 34-year-olds — now represent 69.2 million voters, and they are almost a perfect match in size to the baby boomers, who now number 69.7 million. Millennials are a large enough voting bloc to literally decide who wins. And there are 10 states where the millennial vote could be decisive. The question, of course, is: Will millennials vote?

As we went into this election cycle all signs pointed to the affirmative. Thanks in large part to the energy of the Bernie Sanders campaign, we witnessed building millennial participation. Millennials turned out in record numbers during the primaries in certain contests. In New York, for instance, they helped break state records and voted at a higher percent of their demographic than they had done in 2008 when they supported Barack Obama.

But the post-primary climate has been quite different. A recent GenForward survey shows that 16 percent of voters 18-30 are planning to sit it out and 9 percent have still not decided. Given that Trump only pulls 18 percent of the demographic and Clinton draws 36 percent, these numbers are significant. The survey also shows that young voters support third party candidates far less than the media frequently suggests: Gary Johnson polls at 11 percent and Jill Stein at only 4 percent.

USA Today reports that, “according to Public Policy Polling results from Sept. 29, 63% of 18- to 29-year-olds had an unfavorable opinion of Republican nominee Donald Trump, while 40% held an unfavorable opinion of Clinton.”

So what do we make of the "Nobody 2016" movement? Is it yet another sign of a new disaffected slacker generation? Are these just clueless youngsters who don’t understand the realities of the political world?

While it’s convenient to blame young voters for just not “getting it,” there is substantial evidence that they do, in fact, get it. They get it so well that they want no part of it.

This is why Nobody 2016 has been growing in visibility. While not a new idea, it has gotten increasing energy in the wake of the daily scandals the campaigns sling our way. Each news cycle brings another Trump horror story, and the ongoing leaks of Clinton’s campaign are not helping drum up enthusiasm for her either.

As a response to these grim choices two students from Colorado State and Colorado University, Matthew Nagashima and Daniel Kwolkoski, launched a website promoting the Nobody 2016 platform.

Their slogan is “Make America Ours Again,” and their website calls Clinton a Sith Lord and suggests that Trump eats “deep fried puppy meat.” Their video asks a simple question: “Why would you vote for someone you don’t like?” While clearly ironic, their project is grounded in deep frustration at the way that the election has turned out to be a joke — even if no one is laughing.

Their goal isn’t to get people to stay home — it is to get folks to understand why neither Trump nor Clinton is a good candidate. They suggest write-ins and other ways to vote for Nobody.

Meanwhile, on social media the hashtag #Nobody2016 is going strong and there are two Facebook pages that promote the idea of Nobody 2016 with over a quarter of a million combined likes.

Now before you start wagging your finger at these self-indulgent, impractical, overly idealistic whippersnappers who don’t understand political compromise, stop and consider this. All evidence shows that millennials are as engaged politically as young people have ever been in our nation. Even more, this generation has not had the luxury of being naïve about economics since they themselves carry more debt than any previous young generation. Young voters are keenly interested in a president who will address student debt, income inequality and depressed wages.

Despite being constantly maligned in the media as a bunch of self-involved basement dwellers, this is a generation that is politically mobilized and engaged. And they are far savvier than their elders give them credit for. But it is time to take seriously the reality that young voters may not be willing to get in line and submit to a system they see as rigged, corrupt and uninterested in the issues that matter to them. If they see the lesser-of-two-evils vote as unappealing, it’s time to admit that they have a point.

Much is always made about the fact that millennial turnout has been lower than that of their elders. About half of all young eligible voters cast a ballot in 2008, whereas the boomers voted at 69 percent.

But that statistic does not paint the full picture. Typically turnout for young voters is lower than for older ones. In 1972, 55 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared to 70 percent of those over 25. But, the 1972 voter turnout was an all-time high. After 1972 the young vote dipped, but the election of Barack Obama reversed that trend and in 2008 young voters came just shy of reaching the 1972 record — voting at 54.5 percent of their demographic.

Even more important, the young vote has become increasingly powerful. In 2004, 2006 and 2008 young voters gave the Democrats the majority of their votes and they were the party’s most supportive age group.

Millennials lean decidedly left and they tend to vote Democratic, but that wave of consistent support was severely shattered this election. After supporting Sanders strongly, they were not inspired by Clinton. Then they were outraged over leaks that proved the DNC had not remained neutral. Then Clinton gave Debbie Wasserman Schultz a job in her campaign and #DemExit took on force. And then there were even more leaks -- all of which did little to inspire millennial support. If millennials don’t vote for Clinton, no one should be surprised.

Trump, of course, has tried to leverage Clinton’s weakness with millennials. The Trump campaign continues to flail around trying to pull in the young vote. As Amanda Terkel reports “three men came up with a jaw-dropping plan for Donald Trump to win over millennial women.” The plan? Talk about Bill Clinton’s sex scandals while ignoring Trump’s. So far that isn’t working.

Then Trump held a big “millennial policy” speech on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. While it started with him giving advice to the young voters not to do drugs and to remember absentee ballots, it quickly devolved as Trump defended himself and wailed that he had been "very unfairly battered by people.” Even though NBC news reports that some of the attendees enjoyed their chance to shout about “Crooked Hillary,” the event is unlikely to swing millennials towards the orange gasbag.

With or without the Wikileaks reveals, this is not a generation that is going to support a bigot like Trump. While he has surely attracted some young voters, the bulk of this generation is more likely to make fun of him than to vote for him.

What is fascinating is that young voters are both equally coveted and equally disparaged. They are at one and the same time our great hope and our greatest failing. We blame them for not caring. Then we blame them for caring about all the wrong things. The only consistent trend is that we blame them.

Lewis Black took this angle when he appeared on “The Daily Show” to encourage millennials while also shaming them into voting. “I’ve got no faith in you people,” Black ranted. “In 2012, only 55 percent of the electorate went to the polls. More Americans saw 'Taken 2' that year, and the whole plot is right there in the title. Someone gets taken… again! But this year with a decorative hate squash just steps from the White House, I thought surely more people would go out and vote,” he screamed.

His closing line revealed the deep irony of how we treat young voters: “Come on, millennials, I know we fucked things up for you. But we were counting on you to fix things, not finish the job.”

Black acknowledges that it is not just the election that is a mess; the country is too. Even better, he admits that millennials have inherited this disaster and we have expected them to be better than us and make things right. It’s not just ironic; it’s delusional.

Instead of getting pissed at young voters who don’t feel like cleaning up the messes caused by the boomer generation of Clinton and Trump, perhaps we should start blaming the source of the problem. Maybe it’s time we got media coverage of how boomers have messed up this election and millennials were smart enough to stay out of the fray.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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