Young voters of all political stripes in Wisconsin agree on a big motivating factor driving them to the polls this fall: President Donald Trump.
Their participation could determine the outcome, especially in a state that swings on thin margins like the 22,177 votes that led Trump to victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. An analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tisch College at Tufts University shows this time around, young voters in Wisconsin have more potential to sway the presidential election than their peers in any other state in the country.
According to UW-Madison journalism and political science professor Mike Wagner, young voters in the state are poised to do just that.
Wagner told WisPolitics.com a host of Wisconsin-specific polling data he has examined show voters between the ages of 18 and 24 are more enthusiastic about voting this election than ever. Wagner said polling data show more than 70 percent of that age demographic say they will vote. And of that group, he said, about 70 percent say they will vote for Joe Biden compared to 20 percent who say they will back Trump.
“If the youth vote turns out in the way that they say that they’re going to, it would be an advantage for Joe Biden, and a fairly considerable advantage,” Wagner said.
Voters on both sides of the aisle say they and their peers are excited to vote.
Luke Dretske, a 21-year-old Berlin resident and former GOP candidate in the 41st AD, recalled meeting young people on the campaign trail who looked forward to casting their first presidential election vote for Trump.
“I was campaigning over in Marquette, Adams (counties), and there were a whole bunch of younger groups of people who are just very excited to vote for Trump,” Dretske told WisPolitics.com.
On the other side of the aisle, Allyson Fergot, communications director for UW-Madison College Dems, told WisPolitics.com her organization believes the president poses “a huge threat” to young Dem voters.
“The threat of a Trump presidency and the threat of Trump being able to push (Supreme Court nominee) Amy Coney Barrett through is very influential,” she said.
Young Dems putting practicality over idealism
Many young Dems have thrown their support behind Biden, despite disappointment for some that the primary process didn’t produce a more progressive nominee.
Emma Reading, 25, says she sees Democrats who are voting in their first or second election being asked to put their priorities aside in order to remove Trump from office.
Reading is a college counselor based in Appleton who serves as the treasurer of the Fox Valley Young Democrats. She was disappointed in how the Democratic Party approached top issues like health care, saying she and many of her colleagues were hoping for “more of a Bernie-style plan.”
“Climate change is huge,” she added, citing the California wildfires and increasing prevalence of floods. “It’s so pressing, and I was really hoping to have an administration that would have that as a top priority.”
Reading said she understands the disillusionment she sees in her peers that might lead some to stay home rather than vote for a candidate they’re unenthusiastic about.
“I also understand where folks are coming from, being tired of not feeling as heard,” she said.
But she said not being excited about a candidate “is not an excuse to not participate.” For her, the stakes are too high to justify staying home on Nov. 3 and voting Trump out is reason enough to cast a ballot.
Fergot said some UW-Madison College Dems share Reading’s disappointment over the relatively moderate choice of candidate. She said although the group didn’t endorse a candidate until the primary was over, some members were more excited about progressives like U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“While Biden was not the first choice, he is the candidate we support,” Fergot said.
COVID-19 has limited the group’s election preparations, Fergot said. In a normal year, the organization would organize door-to-door canvassing and registration.
Without these options, outreach has been nearly all virtual — asking students if they are registered to vote and encouraging absentee ballot requests via phone and text banking.
As a result, “our voter contact rate is a lot lower than we would like,” Fergot said.
In the primary, Biden campaigned on expanding the Affordable Care Act and his own plan to address climate change while the candidates to his left embraced Sanders’ Medicare for All and New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.
Still, Fergot said College Dems in Madison are optimistic that Biden will take “a lot of the positive, progressive action” on police reform, climate change and immigration.
“Biden had a few meetings with more progressive Dems like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the primary went on, allowing him to expand his policies and make them more progressive,” Fergot said.
But as with Reading, Fergot said the election is as much about removing Trump from power as putting Biden in the White House.
For her part, Reading is looking beyond Election Day.
“I’m mostly curious once the election is over, and hopefully (Biden’s) in office, I want to see more about who he’s appointing, like the cabinet and other leadership positions,” she said. “That’s where my eye is now.”
On the ground with young Republicans
UW-Madison College Republicans remain firmly behind Trump, according to 20-year-old Communications Director Keeley Collins.
“It seems as though the young people are really fired up,” said Collins, who is from Waunakee. “They’re really excited for the 2020 election. Everyone is really just trying to get involved and wants to be involved in the process since there’s so much weighing on this election.”
Pandemic or no pandemic, members of the UW-Madison College Republicans have been campaigning for a Trump victory in Wisconsin since April.
This year’s outreach efforts have looked a little different. Collins told WisPolitics.com that members knock on doors in masks while staying six feet apart. They’re using their personal cell phones to make thousands of phone calls per week. Young volunteers in Wisconsin made more than 1 million voter contacts in support of Trump in September, Collins said.
“We’ve had to adapt the ways we grassroot and campaign in this unforeseen time,” Collins said. “The phone calls have really been a key part of our 2020 campaign.”
Though College Republicans are not meeting in person, they are connecting virtually. The club hosts virtual “Make Campus Great Again” events featuring different Republican leaders as guests on Tuesday nights.
“I predict we will see an increase in youth voter numbers compared to the 2016 election solely based on the energy surrounding the election on campus,” Collins said. “The energy behind Trump among young voters is immense.”
Collins told WisPolitics.com that energy comes in part from policy moves backed by the Trump administration. She highlighted College Republicans’ support for the president’s 2017 tax cuts and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade deal.
Another young conservative who’s been deeply involved with the election is Luke Dretske, a 21-year-old Ripon College student. Dretske ran in the 2020 Republican primary for the 41st AD on a platform of expanding rural broadband access, investing in clean energy and promoting family values.
After his loss in the primary, Dretske is back to observing politics as a private citizen. Dretske described this election as “the last breath of the boomers” as far as political control goes. He said he saw a generational divide between the concerns of his cohort and the age group running the government.
Among those issues is Social Security.
“Being around my age, I’m like, well, Social Security is gonna be bankrupt in five, six years,” Dretske said. “They should have a plan for how to fix it.”
Dretske also said he thought the GOP was selling itself short by not focusing more on conservation issues, which he sees as a major issue among his conservative peers.
But Dretske’s biggest concern as the election winds down is determining a winner.
“All I want is, I don’t want there to be a tie,” Dretske said. “I don’t want there to be a 269-to-269 electoral vote. I just want someone to come up the winner because if there is a tie, that is going to be terrible.”
He’s worried that there will be difficulties with a peaceful transfer of power in the event of a close contest and that both parties will contest the results if there’s a slim margin between the winner and loser.
“Currently, with the country being so polarized, the last thing that we need is to wait for the results any longer than already expected, given the pandemic and mail-in ballots,” Dretske added in an email to WisPolitics.com.
Catherine Smith, 22 and a senior at UW-Whitewater, said she gets about seven texts and 15 phone calls every day asking for her stance on different political candidates and issues.
On the issues, Smith has plenty to say, especially concerning the Black Lives Matter movement and broader acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. She also said she and many of her sorority sisters were unhappy that they did not receive a stimulus check at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith, a political science major, did not share her voting decision in 2016, citing her background in beauty pageantry and previous work representing non-partisan organizations.
But she does plan to vote, and when it comes to candidates, she’s still making up her mind. The recent presidential debate only worsened her indecision, and she said the same was true of many of her friends.
“I think we’re in another 2016 situation,” Smith said. “We’re picking between the lesser of two evils. And I honestly think that [the presidential debate] showcased that neither of them are capable nor ready to be in that position of president in the Oval Office.”
She did have more favorable opinions of the two vice presidential candidates and their performance at their own debate.
“Senator Harris, I just love her,” she said. “She’s just very upfront, personal, and, and it’s just refreshing to see a woman in that position. Mike Pence, he spoke with a lot of passion, and a lot of just enthusiasm. And I guess, hope for the future, which was super nice.”
Smith also noted that she feels Harris represents her more than the current vice president.
“I think I identify more with her not only just as a woman, but [because] she’s younger,” Smith said.
She added that this kind of representation was of paramount importance to her, especially given the electorate’s rising proportion of youth.
“We need more individuals in politics that are equally representative of the younger generation, because as the majority of the population, we need that direct representation, we need that diversity, we need that inclusivity,” Smith said.
But Smith said that who she ultimately votes for is going to come down to a “gut decision.”
At this point in the election, Smith’s outlook is a rare find.
A series of pollsters said during last week’s two-day WisPolitics.com Midwest Polling Summit they were finding the numbers of undecided voters is rapidly shrinking due to deeply entrenched partisanship and a lack of prominent third-party candidates.
Ensuring youth participation
Asked how the College Democrats at Marquette University are spending the final days before the election, MU Dems Chair Eric Rorholm described a robust, state party-supported phone banking operation to make sure young Dems will vote.
“We make thousands of calls a week. I mean, we are a machine,” Rorholm said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group’s outreach has been completely virtual, over phone and text message. Rorholm said registering and reaching out to students this year has been particularly difficult since many college students aren’t on campus due to the virus.
The virus poses another potential hurdle for turning out MU students: unpredictable dorm quarantines at Marquette could mean hundreds of voters won’t get a chance to vote this election. Rorholm said a combination of strict voter ID laws and possible lockdowns could make it difficult for students to actually reach their polling places.
“We’ve had three different dorms quarantine, all of which had four hours of warning at most, some of them had as little as two,” Rorholm said. “If that situation happens on Election Day and there are students who have not gotten registered and don’t have what they need … they’re stuck, they can’t cast a ballot.”
While college groups are relying on tried and true get-out-the-vote tactics like phone banking, door-knocking, and literature drops, some are trying to think creatively about how to get more of the youngest generation of voters.
Libby Falck, who founded the organization Forward Labs to increase voter mobilization outside of traditional engagement tactics, recently ran a virtual scavenger hunt game to promote absentee voting around the state. According to Falck, the game reached about 9,000 people on social media over four days, with about 40 people participating in the game’s “missions.”
Falck said her approach is based on the “ladder of engagement” theory. Before someone signs up with a campaign to knock doors, they need to understand the impact of their involvement. That’s where Falck sees Forward Labs coming in.
“[The scavenger hunt] was meant to be for young folks who maybe don’t understand the actual logic behind something like phone banking,” she said. “It’s meant to be like that first step toward participating.”
She’s based her approach partly on where she sees the official campaigns missing opportunities to engage with their youngest voters.
“There’s a real lack of understanding among these campaigns and how young people have come to particularly use digital production methods and the web to share messages,” Falck said.
Falck isn’t the only one trying to approach youth voter engagement differently. Wisconsin Conservation Voters has collaborated with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater on a series of music videos aimed at young people in hopes of boosting turnout.
One video, “We Out Here,” by Pyro and Q the Sun, has lyrics discussing the U.S. Census and the importance of being counted. Another, “Change Comes Slow,” by Q the Sun and Mudy, affirms the importance of voting.
Milwaukee County Democratic Chair Chris Walton said he’s noticed excitement among younger Democratic voters while working on phone and text banks.
“A lot of people have been very interactive back and forth,” Walton, a Black 32-year-old who was the youngest person ever elected to his position. “People are excited about this upcoming election, and we’ve really been pushing…to sign up for absentee ballots and mail those back in.”
While the windows to register to vote online or by mail are gone, Walton stressed the importance of getting absentee ballots in the mail, drop boxes or turned in to early voting sites as soon as possible.
“Make sure you know where your [early voting] site is, get those ballots back in if you already have them. If not, go out, early vote and get it done early,” Walton said.
Walton said Dems have been targeting Black voters by hosting virtual events like their Shop Talk roundtables with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a 33-year old Black former legislator from Milwaukee. The events allow voters to engage with representatives and discuss issues Black voters find important.
Still, he’s found engaging young Black voters has been a different challenge than engaging older generations. Walton said young Black voters didn’t experience firsthand the same level of blatant racism in society and politics, meaning their distaste with Trump isn’t nearly as strong as with the older Black generation.
“Older African Americans truly hate Donald Trump with the passion of a white-hot sun because a lot of the things that Donald Trump is getting away with; they’ve seen it throughout American history,” Walton said.
Getting out the vote
Steven Olikara, the CEO of the Millennial Action Project, agreed with the emphasis on early voting, especially in a year dominated by COVID-19.
“Early voting in a pandemic is even more important because it helps to flatten the curve, so to speak, with voting on election day,” Olikara said.
But whether they vote early or on Nov. 3, Olikara added that the youngest section of the electorate needs a reason to turn out. He thinks most campaigns, especially those at the top of the ticket, “totally missed the mark” when it comes to attracting young voters.
“I think national politicians generally get young voters wrong, because they’re listening to pollsters, and pollsters trying to slice and dice young voters in an old framework,” he said.
“They’re just too manufactured and too robotic,” he continued. “[They] lack imagination and lack creativity, because they’re all trying to just play it safe or do whatever it takes to win.”
As far as Olikara is concerned, “young voters are yearning for authenticity, some risk taking, some creativity and imagination.”
“You can’t expect to engage young people by just telling them what to do and forcing messages down their throats,” she said. “You have to give them an opportunity to engage in the way that is interesting to them.”
By Adam Kelnhofer, Caroline Kubzansky, Ashley Obuljen and Gavin Schopf for WisPolitics.com.