On Nov. 8, when the dust finally settles on the 2016 presidential election and the maps on the news channels are all filled in with red and blue, one of the two most disliked candidates in the history of American politics will be declared the next president of the United States. The question is, what will be the prime factor in that decision?
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are chasing the youth vote in an attempt to wrap up the presidency, but they face an uphill battle against apathy and anti-partisan sentiment among young voters.
Clinton’s and Trump’s Millennial Problem
A Quinnipiac poll published Sept.14 found that among likely voters under 35 years old (the average age of a student at Clark is 26), only 31 percent planned to vote for Clinton, versus 26 percent for Trump, with the rest choosing third-party candidates. And that’s just likely voters- according to a Washington Post-ABC poll from late September, only 41 percent of people 30 years or younger are certain they’ll vote at all.
So why the historic unpopularity? For Trump, part of the disconnect might be his ultra-conservative stances, says Clark political science professor Nick Forrest. “On the issues of race and immigration, polling shows that in general, the younger generations are less racist,” Forrest said. “So not just his policy positions, but the way he disrespectfully refers to a large number of people doesn’t resonate with younger people.”
Forrest said that Trump’s denial of climate change and lack of experience could also concern young voters.
For Clinton, it’s more complicated. Forrest says voter turnout for Democrats has been inflated because of President Obama’s popularity among young voters, and “now, to some degree, it’s just returning to normal.” He also said millennials may not like that Clinton “schmoozes with big corporations at times.”
Kim Worth, a local Green Party member, said it has to do with the Democratic Party’s unfulfilled promises.
“[Democrats] promise you the world, and then organize a situation where the Republicans can block everything they do,” Worth said. “Young people don’t come out for the major parties. You can see that they didn’t come out to support the revolution- that was just not happening.”
Worth also blames Clinton personally, calling her a “blood-soaked neocon” and saying that Clinton was “instrumental in [the] Panama [tax dodge].”
The Two-Party System
How did we end up in a situation where two people who most voters actively dislike are the two options for president? The answer is the “spoiler effect,” an inevitable consequence of how voting works in America.
“The spoiler effect means that the third-party candidate takes votes primarily away from one of the two major parties and therefore costs them the election,” Forrest said. “The Democrats and Republicans agree on only one major thing: the two-party system. Neither of them wants a prominent third-party candidate.”
The spoiler effect creates a two-party system because third parties draw voters from whichever popular candidate has closer views to the third party, allowing a candidate that the voters like even less to win the election. In the next cycle, those voters are more likely to settle for whichever popular candidate they agree with more, out of fear of splitting the vote again.
This has occurred before, when Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive Party took votes from William Howard Taft, letting Woodrow Wilson win in 1912; and when independent Ross Perot skimmed votes from George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton won in 1992; and when the Green Party’s Ralph Nader split the vote with Al Gore in 2000.
Worth said he thinks that fear-based voting just obstructs the progress of third parties. “No election over the last 60 years has been the one you want to [vote third-party],” Worth said. “We’ve been doing ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ voting for years.”
According to Worth, the hegemony of the Democratic and Republican parties allows them to be complacent without fearing retribution from voters.
“The two parties just hand the ball back and forth, with each election more about what the other guys do wrong and less about what they do right,” Worth said. “Noam Chomsky pointed out once- we have 33 million people in this country. The notion that two parties represent a majority of people in this country is a joke.”
Forrest said the two-party system results in major-party candidates being tied to centrist policies. “The center is where the votes are,” Forrest said. “So you don’t want to move too far to the left or the right, you want to get those central votes; it’s kind of a balancing act.”
If fear of the spoiler effect wasn’t enough to keep third parties from widespread success, there are plenty of other difficulties. One is funding: on top of the donations major-party candidates receive, candidates from parties with 5 percent or more of the popular vote in the previous election are eligible for federal grants to fund their campaigns, according to the Federal Elections Commission.
Per the FEC, candidates also only get automatically listed on all ballots if their party has met that 5 percent threshold, meaning third parties have to use money and resources collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures just to get on the ballot.
Worth said third parties also suffer from exclusion by the news media. “Five groups of billionaires control everything, four conservative families and Comcast,” Worth said. “The media constructs an alternate universe where what they want to say makes sense.”
Forrest said that the media treats third-party candidates as “at best, like a bit of an entertaining joke, and at worst, probably a little bit crazy. That’s what they think their readers want to read about or what their viewers want to see. So it’s this issue of trying to feed their audience what they think the audience wants.”
According to Forrest, under the current system the main role of third parties is to force major parties to consider issues of far-left and far-right voters. “[Green Party candidate Jill Stein] has got to know that she’s not going to win, but it allows her to deliver her message to a larger audience,” Forrest said. “And in a way, the whole spoiler thing means if you punish one of the major parties by losing them an election, I think they’re gonna have to move to embrace your positions.”
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman sees third parties similarly. Wyman said their presence “pushes the dialogue and the discussion, and makes people really question what things are of value to them, and what do they want the country to look like at a foundational level.”
Fixing the system to include more diverse party representation could be complicated.
“You could argue that it would take a total reboot, even a constitutional change,” Forrest said.
One change Forrest suggests is Mixed Member Proportional voting, a system used in much of Europe among other places. In MMP, instead of races for parliament (or Congress in the U.S.) being winner-takes-all, seats are distributed to parties according to what portion of the popular vote they win. That means even if you don’t get a majority of votes, you still get represented, and there’s no spoiler effect.
Another change that would negate the spoiler effect is instant-runoff voting.
“It gives you the chance to say ‘I want to vote for, say, Jill Stein, but this is my second choice,’” Worth said. “So if Stein doesn’t win, your vote goes to your second choice. Another option, and I’m not sure how I feel about it, is taking over the Democratic party at a grassroots level and making it something that it says it is. That wouldn’t solve the two-party system but it would be a way of affecting it.”
The simplest solution, Forrest said, is for young people to vote more reliably.
“Politicians do pay attention to who can help them and who can hurt them,” Forrest said. “If I know that a certain category of people don’t register and don’t vote, I’m not gonna pay much attention to what their issues are. Senior citizens wield a lot of influence because they register, they vote, they volunteer, they donate to campaigns. Younger people should be doing the same thing to make it clear that the youth vote is important.”
Wyman said Washington is committed to continued outreach to young voters. “One of the things Washington led the country with was online voting; we even had a link on our Facebook page,” Wyman said.
Wyman also emphasized the importance of mail-in ballots, which make voting quicker and easier.
“There’s no excuse for not voting in Washington or Oregon, because you can just sit down at your kitchen table or your favorite bar and fill out your ballot,” Forrest said.
In-person voter registration is open until Oct. 31 at all county election offices and other state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Libertarian Party of Clark County was contacted but could not be reached for comment on this article.