Here's where fed-up Millennials are thinking about putting their votes
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — In this college town nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a common refrain emerges among Millennial voters.
“A lot of people are trending away from the main parties and looking third party,” said Sean Tait, a 22-year-old firefighter. “It would be nice to have new options.”
Tait, who grew up with firearms, feels strongly about gun rights. Accessible health care also is important to him. With these disparate issues being championed by opposing parties, he doesn’t know yet who will get his vote.
In 2012, Tait cast his first presidential ballot for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. This year, it might be Libertarian Gary Johnson or even Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I’m still scoping it out and doing my research,” he said, while he and his girlfriend waited in a packed breakfast joint in Old Town Fort Collins. “It’s still too early to make up my mind.”
Tait is one of 69.2 million eligible voters in the Millennial bloc of 18- to 34-year-olds, nearly matching the size of the estimated 69.7 million voting Baby Boomers in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.
But whether Millennials flex their voting muscle and swing the outcome of the 2016 election remains a question mark. A generation high of 50% of Millennials voted for president in 2008, compared with 46% in 2004 and 2012, according to Pew. That compares to more than 60% turnout among Generation X voters and almost 70% of Baby Boomers in each of those elections.
Among younger Millennials — voters ages 18-24 — rates are even lower: Only 38% cast a vote for president in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Larimer County, home of Fort Collins, has picked the eventual winner in every presidential election except one since 1980. It splits party affiliation: Among locals, it’s been called the rule of thirds — one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third unaffiliated with any political party. The divide deepens in the younger generation.
Among Colorado voters ages 26-40, 44% are unaffiliated with any political party. For those 25 and younger, it grows to 48.4%, according to data from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
During the presidential caucuses earlier this year, Democrat Bernie Sanders’ campaign fired up the youth bloc in Colorado. But his loss — and what Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders characterizes as a less-than-full-throated endorsement of Clinton — leaves allegiances fragmented as the election nears.
Saunders said high negatives for the two major-party candidates typically demobilizes younger voters more than those over 35. And 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.
"I have no idea what affect this is going to have on younger voters, other than, give me something else please,” Saunders said. “And there's nothing else to give."
MILLENNIALS LOOK TO THIRD-PARTY CANDIDATES THIS FALL
Voters unaffiliated with any political party are more likely to consider third-party candidates, polls show.
A national poll by Quinnipiac University in taken in August found 60% of Millennials said they’d consider voting third-party this election.
The same can’t be said for those in the Gen X demographic — the generation born after Baby Boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid-1970s). Among that group, 40% said they’d consider third-party candidates.
In recent polls, Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, reached 8.4%. Green Party candidate Jill Stein was polling at 3.2%. Those figures were too low to get either candidate into the presidential debates.
But young voters also expressed concern that casting a ballot for Johnson or Stein would be simply throwing their votes away.
Kaley Platek, 23, wrestled with that question at a Stein rally in Fort Collins in August. She liked the vision Stein laid out. But she’s inclined to vote Clinton as a push against Trump — which doesn’t fit a vote from her “conscience.”
“If it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I’m definitely going Hillary Clinton,” said Platek, who had a Bernie Sanders pin on her purse. “But, Jill Stein is definitely my first choice.”
Eric Powell, 34, of Fort Collins, rejected the notion of being forced to choose between major-party candidates, especially when a vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate is for someone “you inherently disagree with.” He thinks Clinton and Trump both have too much baggage.
“I think younger people are more idealistic,” Powell said of support for third-party candidates. “Older people are more jaded and resigned to the system.”
Powell expressed frustration with a Democratic nominating system that seemed intent on stopping Sanders’ insurgent campaign. He also talked about Clinton’s long history in the upper echelons of government and said he’s concerned she would drop the country into another major war.
If forced to vote between the two candidates, Powell said he’d tilt toward Trump.
“I would go Trump just because I don’t think he’d go into another war,” Powell said. “But I’m not going to do that either. I’m going to go with an independent.”
Issues, not parties
VOTER ENGAGEMENT DOESN'T MEAN CANDIDATE SUPPORT
Kristin Lynch, a regional spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, pointed to President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories in Colorado as evidence of Millennials being key to Clinton’s victory in November. As a result, the campaign is “firing on all cylinders” to reach them.
Clinton’s campaign stresses issues like health care, public lands, college affordability, gay marriage and abortion rights when lobbying for Millennial support. The campaign also isn’t afraid to trot out Sanders supporters to make the case for Clinton.
"You're having Millennials not wanting to be categorized in boxes, and I think you're seeing that reflected in their political affiliation,” Lynch said, noting the campaign’s push is "vote for our candidate not because she has a D next to her name, vote for our candidate because she has goals that you want to have achieved."
Rachel Keane, the Millennial outreach co-chairwoman for the Trump campaign in Colorado, said her focus has been on Millennials settling into family life, whose attention is shifting toward economic and personal security.
“A lot of these Millennials have a kid, are working on a second kid,” Keane said. “It’s a natural instinct to want to protect them.”
Selling Trump to that demographic means breaking through soundbites and echo chambers that paint him in a negative light, Keane said. That means turning to peer-to-peer channels on social media and positive face-to-face interactions.
“I think a lot of the negative view has to do with the media,” Keane said. “… He is really facing an uphill battle when people are only hearing what the media is saying.”
Social media also has been an important component of the Clinton campaign’s youth outreach strategy. Han Nguyen, the digital director for Clinton’s Colorado campaign, said live-streamed digital outreach on Facebook Live has become paramount. Those streams reach about a million people, with a distinct skew toward those ages 18-35, he said.
Lizzy Stephan, executive director of youth-oriented voter-outreach group New Era Colorado, said young voter engagement is specific to causes, not advocating for a particular person or party.
"I think the Millennial generation is incredibly engaged for social change,” Stephan said. "It's young people who have led the change in conversation around economic equality and racial justice and climate change issues."
Americans younger than 35 placed the economy and jobs as the top issue in each of three USA TODAY/Rock the Vote polls completed this year. Education and college affordability also ranked high for Millennials, as did foreign policy and homeland security.
However, recent police shootings of African Americans have heightened Millennials’ concern over the state of U.S. law enforcement. Nearly seven in 10 young voters polled cited police violence against blacks as a problem, as nearly a quarter of Millennials listed law-enforcement concerns among their most important issues.
Stephan’s group has frequented the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins and has offices in Boulder, home to the University of Colorado, and Denver. The voter outreach push this year is twice what it was in 2012, she said, and is bolstered by changes in state law that increase ballot accessibility by allowing for same-day voter registration and voting by mail.
Going beyond campus
POLITICAL PARTIES WORKING TO GET OUT THE VOTE
Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, where many of the roughly 32,000 enrolled students will vote in their first presidential election this year.
Campus Democrats and Republicans are holding events around the presidential debates, bolstered by lively social media accounts. “Nobody 2016” stickers started appearing on campus at both CU and CSU in August, offering a contrast to the regular fall voter-registration drives.
Beyond campus is a population of roughly 160,000 with a median age of 29.5 — below the statewide median age of 36.3, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lured by Colorado’s outdoors and a booming craft beer scene, working Millennials constitute a growing voting bloc in the county’s population center. Political parties are working in the city’s off-campus gathering spots — farmers markets, festivals, Old Town Square — to reach young voters.
Emily Carr, 23, who works in the insurance industry, said she plans to vote for Trump, even if that doesn’t thrill her. She predicted a low overall Millennial turnout as a result of the distaste people her age have for the candidates.
Carr’s support for Trump, if it could be called that, hinges more on disdain for Clinton. She describes herself as pro-life and “not a feminist.” Her concerns fall in line with social issues, where she feels the Republican standard-bearer will be more of a bulwark than Clinton.
“Personality wise, it doesn’t thrill me to vote for Trump,” Carr said. “But I think there’s a lot of things about Hillary that I don’t think I could stand with.”
Josh Middleton, a 29-year-old videographer, predicts a turnout like that of Obama’s first campaign, when 131 million people voted. But of instead enthusiasm for a candidate, he thinks turnout this year will be driven by how many Millennials recoil at the idea of a Trump presidency.
“I felt really strongly about a candidate in the past and now, we look at the candidates we have, and it’s really discouraging,” Middleton said. “… I feel equally compelled (to vote), not because I have a candidate I support, but very much a candidate I don’t support.”
About this series
THE DECIDERS: 8 COUNTIES THAT COUNT IN 2016
To report this series, the USA TODAY Network identified eight counties around the country that represent key voting groups in the November election, from blue-collar and college-educated voters to rural voters and Latinos. Journalists spent time with voters, political observers and experts in these eight counties — blue, red and purple — talking about the presidential candidates, the issues and the importance of this year’s election.
• Week 1: GOP “base” voters in Waukesha County, Wis.
• Week 2: White, college-educated voters in Chester County, Pa.
• Week 3: African-American voters in Wayne County, Mich.
• Week 4: Latino voters in Maricopa County, Ariz.
• Week 5: Rural voters in Union County, Iowa
• Week 6: Millennial voters in Larimer County, Colo.
In the coming weeks, look for our coverage of the following counties: Clark County, Ohio; and Hillsborough County, Fla.