The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats need young voters to win in 2020. But many are skeptical of the party.

Demonstrators participate in a Vote for Our Lives rally Oct. 31 at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Democrats are counting on young voters to make gains in the November elections.
Demonstrators participate in a Vote for Our Lives rally Oct. 31 at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Democrats are counting on young voters to make gains in the November elections. (John Raoux/AP)
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AUSTIN — Dana Fattouh, 18, likes almost everything about the Democratic Party.

She likes that the presidential hopefuls talk about making college more affordable, because she’s working two jobs to put herself through school. She appreciates how forcefully the candidates have come out against racism and xenophobia, because she’s been teased about wearing a hijab for most of her life.

But Fattouh refuses to call herself a Democrat. And though most of her policy preferences align with the party’s liberal wing, she won’t commit to vote blue in 2020. Rather, she says she’ll research her options and decide who best aligns with her values.

“I think political parties are stupid,” she said.

Her friend Hana Thai, 18, echoed that skepticism. “I’m not going to shut down the idea of voting for a Republican if they can back up what they’re saying and it kind of makes sense,” Thai said. “We have to break from the mob mentality.”

Democrats are counting on voters like Fattouh and Thai to help them win big in 2020. People between 18 and 29 overwhelmingly support the party but haven’t always shown up at the polls. They vote at a lower rate than any other age group — making up just 13 percent of the electorate in the 2016 presidential race, a lackluster turnout that many analysts believe contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.

There are signs that’s changing. In 2018, 36 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 reported voting, up from 20 percent the previous midterm election in 2014. Experts predict an even greater turnout spike in 2020.

But interviews with nearly 50 left-leaning young people in four battleground states — Texas, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan — reveal a deep skepticism toward partisan politics, and the Democratic Party. Young voters say Democrats haven’t proved they can address the challenges faced by millennials and Gen Z. They want candidates who take them seriously — and who can offer the detailed policy plans to prove it.

In conversation, these voters say they’re attracted to the ambitious policies of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), though many are undecided.

They used to be Beto O’Rourke fans. But Texans’ allegiance to him has vanished as quickly as ‘Beto-mania.’

Tessa Schutt, a 20-year-old in Grand Rapids, Mich., is frustrated that Democrats have not been able to effect real change in Washington, particularly on health care.

She leans left, but like a third of voters ages 18 to 24, she identifies as an independent. “I don’t believe that a bipartisan system is sufficient. I can’t see myself identifying with establishment candidates,” she said. “It’s a lot of platitudes, less concrete action.”

Brian Will, 22, a recent college graduate from Traverse City, Mich., embraces liberal ideas like the Green New Deal and student debt forgiveness. He’s glad to hear presidential candidates talk about these issues on the trail.

But too often, he says, Democrats fall far short of pursuing ambitious change, favoring pragmatic solutions and incremental steps instead.

“Democrats are usually on the right side of things, [but they] don’t go far enough on some issues,” he said.

Will isn’t excited about his choices in the primary. He like Sanders but says many of the candidates seem as though they have been “focus-grouped to death.”

Even so, he, like others interviewed, said he’ll vote in November 2020 to unseat Trump.

Sebastian Solove, a 28-year-old doctor in Philadelphia, has similar critiques. He is sick of Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) forcing younger, more liberal members of Congress to slow down on their calls for impeachment and action on climate change. He wants to see the party fully embrace the “moral high ground” on issues such as universal health care.

That’s why he’s supporting Sanders in the primary. “I like the ‘no middle ground,’ ” he said. “Whether it’s climate change or corporate welfare, we’re all sick of it. This economy is not working for normal people.”

In interviews, young voters said they are looking for candidates who understand the immense financial and social pressures they face. They are grappling with thousands of dollars in student loans, the high costs of health care and an uncertain future contending with the worsening effects of climate change.

Candidates press to connect with black voters

For Madeline Amaro, a 20-year-old business student at Western Michigan University, that means finding a candidate who takes the issue of college affordability seriously. By the time she finishes law school, which she plans to attend post-college, Amaro will have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

“I don’t think bettering my life should cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars at all,” she said. For that reason, Amaro is leaning toward Sanders. His plan for free college tuition is the biggest draw, she added.

Catherine Wicker, 22, would like to move into an apartment with her boyfriend in Austin, but she is struggling to find one that they can afford while they finish up their studies. She is weighed down by student debt. A chronic health condition, similar to Crohn’s disease, promises a lifelong battle with insurance bills.

“The policies the candidates make will affect young people every single day,” she said.

Wicker, the president of Texas College Democrats, resists the notion that her generation is chock full of idealists and radicals. Instead, she said, it’s the promise of tangible improvements that excites her and others.

“Everyone says we are the future of the party, but we’re not the future,” Wicker said. “We’re the now.”

That sentiment is driving her toward Warren.

Many of those interviewed — even voters who supported Sanders in 2016 — say they’re impressed by Warren’s detailed proposals.

Hadlee Robinson, 20, the vice president of the Western Michigan University College Democrats, walked door-to-door with her father for Sanders in 2016, before she could even vote. She was drawn to him, she said, because he brought new ideas to the table at a time when change was necessary. She persuaded her parents, former Clinton supporters, to cast their primary ballots for the senator from Vermont.

But now, Robinson favors Warren.

“She has big ideas. She also has a plan,” Robinson said, comparing Warren to Sanders. “He hasn’t given us the ‘how’ like she has.”

Two women in a Michigan cul-de-sac fret over the Democrats’ leftward lurch and another Trump term

In interviews, many young voters said they were looking for candidates to be honest about their pasts and address their own mistakes. For example, some held grudges against Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) for incarcerating people of color while working as a prosecutor and urged her to speak openly about how she has evolved.

“If you had a different opinion, like, 20 years ago and now you’re changing, that’s not flip-flopping. That’s growth,” said Malvika Saklani, 22, from Red Rock, Tex. “But the biggest thing I would want — I know this is such a cliche — but is for them to be more transparent.”

In Austin, which has seen a spike in young professionals over the past few years, Wicker and her boyfriend, Brendan James, 26, spent their Fourth of July registering voters at a music festival. With only the occasional break to cool down in the shade, they took turns maneuvering from picnic to picnic, handing out voter registration cards under the blazing sun. They offer up just one piece of advice for the candidates: Don’t take young people for granted.

“Everyone says to us, ‘You’re the future of the party,’ ‘We need your help volunteering and blockwalking,’ ‘We will offer you unpaid internships,’ ” Wicker said.

“But if you’re a 2020 candidate and you want to know about us, ask us,” James added. “We’d love to sit down and chat with them about what it’s like to be a 18- to 35-year-old, and I imagine there are a lot of people in that age range who would do the same.”