Primary Politics: Millennials can influence the presidential primaries, all they have to do is vote
In January 2017, a new president will take the oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol building. On March 8, Michigan residents will vote for a candidate to represent their party in the race to be the next president of the United States.
The Michigan presidential primary is a direct, statewide process of selecting candidates and delegates. Unlike the 10 states that caucus, which involve registered members of a political party gathering together to vote for their preferred party candidate, state residents cast a ballot in Michigan’s closed primary.
Under the Michigan Election Law, there is no political party registration requirement. Any Michigan registered voter can participate in the primary. By law, however, voters must indicate in writing which party they wish to vote for. This is only required in the Michigan primary elections and the resident’s choice does not affect voting in the presidential election.
Republicans and Democrats use primaries and caucuses to select one candidate to represent their party come election season.
There are two different types of primaries: open and closed. In an open primary, all registered voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of their political affiliation. However, in a closed primary, voters only select candidates who belong to the same party as them.
Political science faculty member Jayne Strachan spent much of her career studying voting and civic engagement among university students.
While millennials might not think voting in the primaries is important, Strachan said those who take the time to vote are the people whose causes and issues are considered first by those running for president.
“The people who show up (to vote) in the primaries are the people that drag the parties,” Strachan said. “They become the core voters (their) party cannot ignore.”
How Michigan votes
In the last several presidential races, Michigan has voted for Democratic candidates when casting ballots in the November election. Since 1976, Michigan has voted for a Republican presidential candidate only four times.
TJ Bucholz, president and CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs, said he hesitates to classify the state as Democrat ‘blue’ or Republican ‘red’ because blended beliefs make Michigan “really more of a purple.”
“We have a real checkered (voting) history,” he said. “How Michigan votes is dependent on (political) climate and interest in primaries. There are a lot of independents (in the state) who want their say on certain candidates.”
Because the state has close ties with blue collar and union jobs — like the automotive industry — voters tend to favor candidates who value those ideals, regardless of party, Strachan said.
When President Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 and again in 2012, he did so with the help of millennial voters. According to the Pew Research Center, in Obama’s 2008 campaign, 66 percent of voters under age 30 voted for Obama. This made the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.
Through voting drives and appealing to causes millennials were passionate about, Obama was able to go from an unlikely candidate to President of the United States.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the number of Americans born between 1982 and 2000 — the generation known as millennials — stands at roughly 83.1 million. They represent more than a quarter of the country’s population. Michigan, however, is one of the few states where millennials do not outnumber baby boomers.
While the youth vote is important to consider, and can be a powerful tool in winning elections, it’s difficult to depend on, Bucholz said.
“Millennials are a wild card at this point,” Bucholz said. “The vast majority of millennials are unplugged from TV, radio and newspapers. They learn everything from the Internet, especially Twitter, and they don’t do their homework. That is the reason why campaign strategies are still centered around (appealing to baby) boomers and people that are traditionally well-versed in (major political) issues.”
To appeal to the millennial generation, a few things must be considered by candidates.
Millennials are the second most ethnically and racially diverse group in the U.S, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-four percent of the millennial population is a member of a minority race. The only generation more diverse is Generation Z, or Americans born from the year 2000 onward.
Issues concerning college debt and redistribution of wealth “resonate strongly” with millennial voters, Bucholz said, whereas baby boomers are more concerned about being conservative financially.
Executive Vice President of Marketing Resource Group, Dave Doyle, said candidates try to target the votes they know they’re guaranteed to get.
“First, (candidates) look at who has voted in the past. If somebody has a history of voting in a Democratic or Republican primary, those are your top targets,” Doyle said. “Then they try to expand their base. If (candidates) feel they have appeal to younger voters, you’ll see them visiting college campus and advertising to younger voters.”
Save the date
This primary election, Michigan is in a tough place.
The state falls late in terms of primary dates. Coming just after Super Tuesday on March 1, when 13 states will hold their primaries and caucuses on the same night, Michigan doesn’t hold as much political weight as it has in previous years, when the primaries were held in January or February.
The dates are determined by the national party, Doyle said, not the state.
“There was a real effort at the national party-level that Iowa and New Hampshire went first and anyone who went before March 15 was a proportionate state,” he said.
A proportionate state does not operate on a winner-take-all system. In a non-proportionate state, a candidate who wins 51 percent or more would be entitled to the vote of every delegate in the state, instead of the proportionate amount they won.
If Michigan were to schedule their primary earlier, the state would be penalized and end up “hold(ing) less political sway,” Doyle said.
“If Michigan was going to go in January, we were going to lose around three-quarter of our delegates to the National Convention,” he said. “If (Michigan) was entitled to 59 delegates and only got 20 of those, we would have less of a say as to who’s nominated for president.”
Because Democrats have won Michigan for the past two decades, Doyle said the state is usually thought of as a “somewhat automatic” victory for the Democrats at the national level.
That doesn’t mean residents shouldn’t vote.
“Some of the earlier states are really important in the primary process for being perceived as a serious candidate for the presidency,” she said. “We don’t come as early in the process so we have less (political) weight. Michigan is a bigger state, so we matter (in general election voting). Candidates think about how they can take our Electoral College votes, but we’re not the same as California or Texas who have a huge number of electoral (votes).”
Michigan has 16 Electoral College votes.
A look ahead
For the first time in history, the millennial generation outnumbers the baby boomers by several thousand. Still, baby boomers “dominate the conversation of politics” because they’re the core of regular votes politicians can count on, Strachan said.
“My generation, Gen X, (is) not as politically active as the boomers were — and even if we had been, our generation is so small by comparison that we wouldn’t have made a difference,” Strachan said. “We just didn’t have the number of votes on our side for politicians to seriously consider us in an election. The boomers have always gotten lots of attention. But (the millennial) generation is the first generation, with the population size, to be a counterweight to get politicians to talk about something else.”
She called millennials a “potential force to be reckoned with.”
“The more politicians have to plan what they say, the more candidates have to realize what they need to talk about to appeal to (young) voters and build that into their identity and platforms. Because they can’t win a nomination or a general election without you, the more attention the issues your generation thinks of as important is going to get,” Strachan said.
President of Central Michigan University College Republicans, Mount Morris sophomore Mackenzie Flynn, said millennials are “unplugged” from the political scene, but hopes this will change as students grow older.
She, along with other members of her RSO, has gone tabling to help register students to vote.
“It’s really important to not just vote in primaries, but to vote all the time because your voice really does matter,” Flynn said. “It’s important to look at each individual candidate, consider their promises and what they’re going to be able to do (for the country.)”
Students becoming more concerned about voting and political issues is just a natural progression of time and gaining social responsibilities, Doyle said.
“If you move down the age range you’re less likely to vote, so a 60-year-old is more likely to vote than a 40-year-old and so on,” he said. “If I’m 20 today, as every two years go(es) by, the odds of me voting go up. That’s just because you have more time, you have a job, you’re invested in the community, you may have a relationship and have kids — voting, and the influence it has, just becomes more important.”
This phenomenon changes, Doyle said, when a candidate who gets “younger voters excited” enters the race. If a candidate can get younger voters excited, he said, especially if they talk about issues younger voters are concerned about, then voter turn out will go up.
Grand Rapids junior Tommy Berry, vice president of CMU College Democrats, said voting is one of the most important things a student can do.
“Students have a chance to decide which candidates will be on the docket for their major party. We have a variety of options,” he said. “Your vote is your voice.”
Candidates will not prioritize the issues millennials rally around unless they show up in the primaries, Strachan said.
“If you want to shape what your party stands for, if you want to have influence beyond your numbers, show up in the primaries,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of influence and play over what the party stands for, what issues they can’t ignore and what topics (those running for president) have to address because their base is going to show up in the primaries. They can’t win the primaries without satisfying those people.”