If you’re a Democratic lifer terrified of the fractured youth vote—and its facilitation of a Trump presidency—someone like Daniel Kowoski is your waking nightmare. Kowoski, the 20-year-old founder of the “Nobody 2016” movement, is something of a poster child for weaponized political apathy thils election cycle. “A vote for Clinton is just as bad as a vote for Donald Trump,” he tells me on speakerphone from the University of Colorado. “If you’re supporting her, you’re supporting a corrupt system, a system that is broken.”
Kowoski, along with his friend Matt Agorist, got the idea for their campaign in August, right around the time Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination. He’d been a Sanders supporter, but watching her “steal the election” (a reference to a belief held by many Sanders supporters that the DNC rigged the primaries) inspired him to go into full veto mode. So he and his buddy started printing out their purple-and-white stickers, going out late at night and plastering their campus with the message—a message, according to the pair, that isn’t so much prescriptive as it is an open-ended suggestion.
“We’re not necessarily trying to get people not to vote—that’s the biggest misconception,” Kowoski says. “We’re saying, write in Nobody 2016. Vote for whatever third party representative you want. Get involved in local elections. As long as you’re not playing into those two parties.”
Young people haven’t cared much for the Democratic machine in recent history. As research from Harvard University has suggested, their lines of thinking are more cynical than idealistic when it comes to the two-party system: Less than a third of 18- to 31-year-olds think running for office is an honorable thing to do, and two-thirds believe politicians get in the game for fundamentally selfish reasons. Since 1964, young Americans have voted in lower numbers than every other age group. To put it plainly: The kids just don’t give a fuck about your institutional two-party politics.
Only when candidates aggressively court the demographic do they show up to the polls in greater numbers. See: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders. As the historian Jon Grinspan has documented, through the 19th century politicians had success lobbying 21-year-olds for the first ballots they’d cast, referring to the milestone as the “virgin vote.” In more recent history, Clinton spoke directly to the youngs using their favored medium, MTV; Sanders cultivated a base of college students hitting the anti-capitalism, far-left angle hard. (As it’s also probably worth noting, some polls show the majority of young people also reject capitalism.)
As for the two major-party candidates, it’s only this month they’ve begun to speak to the youth, almost as an afterthought. At Temple University in September, the famously centrist Clinton took a play from Obama and told them she “needed” them to help her “drive real change.” At a recent speech in Columbus, Ohio, Trump mumbled something about debt, that endlessly reliable talking point, and perhaps unwisely reminded them not to do drugs.
For all the recent speculation that young voters are uniquely disinterested, this election cycle hasn’t, until this point, been particularly different than decades prior. According to data from Stanford, Millennials aren’t showing up in significantly lower numbers than Boomers and Gen-Xers did during the same parts of their lives. When Nixon was elected, Hunter S. Thompson blamed it on the youngs not voting. A 1996 New York Times article about the same demographic—”young, diverse, disillusioned”—reads as if were published yesterday, sans the very real threat of a candidate like Trump. The interviewees are concerned about finding jobs when they graduate and vague on their party affiliations. A quoted expert blames their lack of decisiveness and cynicism on their “being steeped in the new information environment.”
And now in 2016, less than two weeks before the election, those 69.2 million voters are again being targeted for their apathy, their idiocy, their failure to look at the world as it is.
Good Democrats are terrified the historically progressive, if unpredictable, voting bloc will, though its own petulant idealism, ruin it for the rest of us. Last month, along with a screenshot of a statistic suggesting more than 30% of young people were considering voting for third-party candidates, Clara Jeffrey, the editor in chief of Mother Jones magazine, tweeted (and then deleted) that she’d “never hated millennials more.” Just a few days ago, a Funny or Die video made the rounds that showed parents discovering their daughter’s Gary Johnson 2016 button as if it were a stash of drugs. “It’s called a protest vote, dad,” sighs the disaffected, cloudy-eyed teen.
It was in this climate that Kowaski and Agorist launched their Nobody 2016 campaign: Salon used them as a peg for a story about “maligned millennials” eager for political engagement outside the two-party system. The Fiscal Times published a piece suggesting their stickers, in a roundabout way, could bring on a President Trump.
Like the Giant Meteor 2016 platform—which at one point polled as high as 13%—and the flippantly disgusted memes, the Nobody 2016 campaign channels an extreme exhaustion at the tail end of an election cycle in which, let’s be frank, there are few good options for a cynical twentysomething. Clinton and Trump are some of the most disliked political candidates in memory; Public Policy Polling results from late September suggested that 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds had unfavorable opinions of Trump, while 40% weren’t enamored with Clinton.
But as Kowaski and the founders of the “Nobody 2016” campaign admit, it’s the media attention more than anything that’s shone the spotlight on their cause. They have more than 110,000 likes on Facebook, but only about 20 “field agents” across a handful of campuses in the United States. Their primary function is to coordinate late-night sticker bombing campaigns.
And in interviews with young voters vocally opposed to the major-party candidates, I found most of them so disgusted with the major of two evils they’d decided to cast votes for the Democratic nominee. They may not have been impressed by a candidate, but they certainly have been impacted by the oft-repeated idea that a vote for a third-party candidate like Johnson or Stein is a vote for the GOP’s scorched-earth candidate.
Stephanie Yee, a 22-year-old UMD student, says she’s casting an absentee ballot for Clinton—though not without initial reservations. “I can’t believe the real first time I’m paying attention to politics is this shit show,” she says. “I feel like a lot of other people in this truly extraordinary election. I’m frustrated. I would go so far as to say incredulous.”
Yee did consider voting for a third-party candidate; she has some older friends voting for Stein, but as far as she’s concerned a vote for her is a vote for Trump. “I wouldn’t say I’m ecstatic,” she says, “but I think there are so many young people self-righteously declaring that they’re voting third-party without actually informing themselves. Gary Johnson? He’s hilarious. He’s said too many ridiculous things to count”—including, of course, his Aleppo comment, which cost him about six points with millennial voters in the weeks after he uttered it.
Hard-core Sanders supporters, too, some of whom once shunned Clinton for her ties to big banks and foreign policy decisions, are coming around. Bob Keefe, 20, a UNH student studying forestry, tells me he’s been a Sanders fan since he filibustered against the extension of Bush-era tax cuts in 2011. “I was hoping he’d run in 2016 and he did,” says Keefe, who describes himself as “not a fan of Clinton” for her foreign policy interventions and tendency to change positions depending on what’s politically convenient at the time.
“After Bernie dropped out,” he says, “I was torn.” He considered a protest vote for a third party, but realized “it was a horrible idea because Trump had won the GOP nomination.” Sam LeBlanc, a 24-year-old web developer in North Carolina and a former donor to the Sanders campaign, similarly reconsidered once the levity of the choice sunk in: “I made the decision [not to vote third-party] during the first debate, when it became clear Trump was going to appeal to the so-called deplorables,” he says. Nearly everyone he campaigned with for Sanders is switching, he says. “It’s a matter of conscience.”
But Briana Cusson, a 21-year-old careworker in New Hampshire, is still undecided—only because of Clinton's recent controversies, she says. Swayed by the Wikileaks dumps on the Clinton campaign, she’s lukewarm at best, and she’s familiar with Clinton’s policy positions but still wants to look into just how bad the “controversies” are. Still, when pressed, she admits that yes, she’s voting, and “most likely” for the Democratic nominee.
Young people may be idealistic, but they aren’t stupid; how successful can the two-party system be, after all, if it brought us this election? Even if we’re hearing young people voicing deep dissatisfaction, the most recent polls tell us they’re still planning on voting, and for fewer third-party candidates than good liberals initially feared. Harvard’s most recent survey, released just yesterday, gives Clinton 49% of the Millennial vote. Just as certain candidates—including Rubio, Cruz, and Sanders, who brought out one of the largest youth voter turnouts for a primary in two decades—mobilize the youth to vote for them, so do truly awful ones inspire the kids to vote against them.
“What terrifies me about Trump is that, well, he did get this far,” Yee tells me. “He does have a huge following.” At this point, she doesn’t think he’ll win, but she’s still fearful that “the rhetoric, the attitudes, and culture he’s promoted will be damaging for a long time.”