This election cycle has aroused the usual grumbling and finger-wagging at young Americans. Will they vote? Will they vote correctly? When Debbie Wasserman Shultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, surveyed the political landscape in January, she said she saw “complacency” among young women. “Young voters, all they know is Benghazi,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, when asked why they weren’t flocking to Hillary Clinton. Their liberal views “ought to frighten every business and political leader,” Republican pollster Frank Lutz warned in February, after he surveyed a group of 18- to 26-year-olds via Snapchat. More people between 18 and 21 told Lutz they’d prefer to have dinner with Bernie Sanders than with Beyoncé or Taylor Swift — liberal, yes, but it’s hard to argue they aren’t interested in politics.
What’s really remarkable about the 2016 election isn’t how disengaged young people are, but how profoundly they’re shaping it: from the outside, as activists; from the inside, as essential parts of the campaign machinery; and as voters. Millennials are more diverse than any other generation, and they occupy a slice of the electorate now as large as the Boomers’. Youth turnout in the primaries so far is on par with 2008, and in New York it was even higher, with people under 29 casting 14 percent of the ballots. Young voters could have a significant impact in at least 10 states this November, including the crucial battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.
In the Democratic presidential primary, young people set many of the terms of debate. Early in her campaign, for instance, Hillary Clinton sat down with a group of DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants who, though they can’t vote themselves, have made protection from deportation an essential part of the Democrats’ immigration agenda. Young Black Lives Matter activists forced Sanders to confront racial justice issues with more nuance, and called out Clinton for previously referring to black youths as “superpredators.” Thanks to young climate activists, both candidates have promised to ban fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Under pressure from students, both put forward plans they say will end college debt. Young organizers are influencing local races, too: Anita Alvarez, the Chicago prosecutor who was slow to charge police officers involved in the deaths of young black civilians, was booted from office in April after a months-long campaign led by the Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters.
The Democratic presidential campaigns, along with outside political groups, also rely on the skills of young organizers, digital experts and pollsters. When Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, the iPhone wasn’t even available for purchase. Now, smartphones and other digital media are revolutionizing the way campaigns communicate with donors and voters, and the shift has created space for a younger generation of tech-literate political activists and campaign workers to fill.