Independent minded

Virginia millennials have little use for political parties

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Print this page by Robert Burke
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“Millennials don’t like politics,” says
Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy
Ford Wason Center. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Politicians, you might not like hearing this. It turns out that millennials in Virginia don’t think much of your line of work.

It’s not that they vote less than older voters, says Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center at Christopher Newport University. It’s just that many in this cohort of 18- to 36-year-olds think there are better ways to solve problems.

The Wason Center has released results of a survey conducted last summer of more than 2,000 millennials around Virginia in an effort to find out what they think in a range of areas. (Read the full text of the Wason Center survey.)

“Millennials don’t like politics,” Kidd says. “Even though they vote at pretty high rates and even though they say they’re going to vote at the same rate in the next election, it’s clear that they don’t like politicians.” Just 11 percent see political engagement alone as the better way to solve important issues, according to the survey. A third say community volunteerism is the better option. Compare this response with the attitude of baby boomers, Kidd says, “who saw politics and politicians as the solution to many problems.”

Millennials’ attachment to the two major parties is “tenuous,” according to the survey. Statewide, more say they are Democrats (37 percent) than Republicans (24 percent), but those in the biggest group (40 percent) identify themselves as “independent/other.”

In the last presidential race (in 2012), 60 percent of millennials in Virginia backed President Barack Obama, while 30 percent chose GOP nominee Mitt Romney. There are regional differences, too: Democratic support among millennials is highest in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Republicans do best in Southern and Southwest Virginia and the Richmond region.

Kidd says millennials tend to sit out off-year elections when there are no statewide offices on the ballot. In the 2015 races, overall turnout of the total electorate was just 29 percent. “Who are the people who turned out? They’re more likely to be Gen Xers and baby boomers. They’re not younger voters,” he says. “Part of our challenge is finding a way to engage millennials, to make the political process appealing. This is not unique to Virginia; it is unique to millennials, however.”

This generation “grew up hearing the political process as about fighting and not problem solving,” Kidd says. The oldest members of the generation were children when Bill Clinton was first elected, in 1992, and grew up amid all the partisan fights and bad behavior of that time. “They haven’t really experienced the political process as being effective.”

That perception is a little troubling, Kidd thinks. “The things millennials want out of life are the things we all want, and the way we get those things is by holding elected officials accountable. Millennials want those things but don’t want to engage in the political process.”

Kidd might find this attitude troublesome, but Kasia Nielsen, a third-year student at the University of Virginia, sees opportunity. She chairs the College Republican Federation of Virginia and has been involved in GOP politics since she was an intern for the Romney campaign. “There really is no reason to worry about this generation,” says Nielsen, 21. The fact that so many millennials identify as political independents just means they’re up for grabs. “The GOP has a great opportunity” to win them over, she says.

Michelle Woods, 28, a leader of the Arlington Young Democrats, says one factor in millennials’ attitude toward politics is the use of social media. It is a huge part of how they communicate, and that tendency has had both good and bad effects, she says. Political attacks travel fast on Twitter and pretty much every other social media channel.

“There’s definitely been a pattern of calling out politicians … in a really negative way, which is really unattractive to young people,” she says. “It ends up turning people off. They turn to community engagement because it’s something they feel rewarded for, and that they’re making a difference.”

Matt Brown, 26, the president of the Arlington Young Democrats, agrees that the bitter tenor of politics is turning young people away at just the age when they should be getting involved. At the local level, political parties need to show young voters that they need to show up.

“You have to move it beyond just a request to get involved to a discussion of specific issues,” such as housing, education and transportation, he says. “It is the local politics that really makes a difference in the day-to-day.”

Brown became involved in politics as a volunteer with the Obama campaign and points out that it did “energize people of my generation and gave us a belief that our voice can be heard.” If millennials find satisfaction in community involvement, they can find it in the political process, too, he believes. “It’s all about showing people of my generation that the time they invest can be valuable,” he says.

Kidd notes some other distinctive characteristics of millennials. Nationally, they represent the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in the U.S., and the largest as well, with a population of 82 million. They’re also less religious and less partisan than previous generations. In Virginia, more millennials are white (64 percent) than the national average (57 percent). Northern Virginia has the most diverse millennial population, with Southern and Southwest Virginia having the least.

One element of the survey that surprised Kidd was the general optimism Virginia millennials have about their financial situations. The oldest members of the generation came into the workforce amid the 2007-09 recession, and a plurality (46 percent) think they’ve faced a worse situation financially than their parents did.

Yet millennials in Virginia and throughout the country are very optimistic about their financial future. In Virginia: 73 percent expect things to get better in the next five years, and that percentage holds up in every region, including the more economically depressed Southern and Southwestern parts of the state. “They’re excited about their future, even if they feel really beaten up” by the recession, Kidd says.

Nielsen at U.Va. thinks that optimism also shows up in the political process, at the local, state and federal levels. She’s working toward building Republican groups on campuses around the state and says millennials are listening. Plus, technology makes it easier than ever to reach them.

“I cannot stress how much social media has played a significant role in engaging with young voters,” she says. After recent presidential debates, her social media feeds would light up with political commentary, and she knows that discussion spreads beyond her circle of young Republicans. “People are sharing these quick videos from the debate, or a spoof of the debate,” she says. “So students are paying attention.”

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