Millennials could sit out this election. What’s that mean for party politics?

This election will be formative for many Millennials, who are unimpressed with the candidates and unfaithful to the parties. Some say they could reshape governance.

Jim Young/Reuters
Wristbands for voters are seen at a polling station during early voting in Chicago on Oct. 14, 2016.

 A new poll finds that enthusiasm about voting in this year’s election has slipped among Millennials, even as broad majorities say they favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The survey, performed by USA Today and Rock the Vote, shows Mrs. Clinton carrying about 68 percent of Millennials’ votes, compared to Mr. Trump’s 20 percent and a combined 9 percent for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. A dislike of both major-party candidates, widespread across the electorate, is especially accentuated among young people, who aren’t convinced enough by the third-partyers to cast a ballot their way. And 46 percent say that their vote “doesn’t really matter” – up from 37 percent at the beginning of the year.

“Certainly, this is not an election that’s going to teach young people to have a great deal of faith in American political processes,” says Kay Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “I worry about that. I know that democracies work better when they trust each other and they trust the government.”

Such lukewarm support of Clinton might underscore Millennials’ lack of deep partisan identification, despite their propensity to lean Democrat. In 2014, the Pew Center found that a full half described themselves as independents, around the highest level in 25 years of polling on that question. It also resurfaces questions about how the political landscape – including the clout of the two major parties – might be altered by young people’s inclinations.

For years now, researchers and journalists have prophesied a sea change in the role of governments and political institutions once Millennials come of age.

“What Millennials have in store for the political system is revolutionary,” wrote the Atlantic’s Ron Fournier in 2013. “Maybe worse.”

A generation of socially liberal young people for whom community service is second nature, but who are skeptical that the government can resolve social problems, could look more to smaller-scale, high-tech solutions from the private sector and NGOs, wrote Mr. Fournier. And some experts told the Atlantic that they could envision a breakdown of the two-party system in which much of government comes to serve as little more than a series of platforms for citizen start-ups. 

Others predict a similar devolution in voter turnout among Millennials. A 2014 report from research firms Quinn Thomas and DHM Research acknowledged the key influence of Millennials on state-level measures on marriage equality and education reform. But their participation would be circumscribed, they concluded.

“Long-term, [M]illennials may disproportionately participate in key ballot measure initiatives, but not participate in electing specific candidates or supporting partisan party platforms,” they wrote.

Yet political parties remain strong, points out Dr. Schlozman, with grass-roots activism robust and voting split increasingly along partisan lines, and electoral laws stacked against the emergence of third parties.

Millennials’ distrust of institutions and preference for civil-society over government solutions, she suggests, might be no more than a continuation of a trend that extends back into previous generations. 

“It is a generation that has thus far shown itself to be disdainful of politics, cynical about political parties and more likely than any other age group to support third-party candidates,” wrote the American Prospect in one 2003 article about Generation Y, or those who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. “Racially diverse” and “socially liberal,” the magazine wrote, Generation Y-ers were “engaged in the life of the community and expect to improve it.”

This electoral season, says Schlozman, might indeed give Millennials extra reason to distrust institutions. But what makes them distinctive might actually be quite familiar.

“That whole story,” she says, “we heard half a generation ago.” 

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