In the last month Michelle Obama has taken stages across the country to stump for Clinton, mostly to convey a single message: Vote. In television interviews and at a Clinton event in Winston-Salem last week, she’s reminded young voters how close her husband came to losing in some states in 2012, and how crucial the under-30 vote has been in swing states—particularly in Pennsylvania, where Obama won by just 17%.
“This is not about voting for the perfect candidate,” the First Lady told a crowd of college students last month. "There is no such person.”
The talking points are well-worn territory: As Election Day draws closer, Democrats have been eager to remind young voters just how naive it is to follow Gary Johnson’s favorite dictum: “Vote your conscience, not someone else’s beliefs.”
Whether the blame has been placed on disillusioned Bernie Bros defecting to Johnson or idealistic Stein supporters, there’s been a pervasive sense that either unfettered optimism or a failure to be real about electoral politics will fracture the vote and, in a roundabout way, elect Trump. But less than two weeks from election day, polls show that scenario is increasingly unlikely; as of last week, a Harvard public opinion survey suggested Clinton could take home 49% of the millennial vote.
And it’s beginning to look as if those Doomsday scenarios placing almost half of the youth vote in the hands of third-party candidates were overblown in the first place—one of those things that happen when the dominant culture’s opinions are weighted, and aggregated, and then somehow become a matter of fact. Because, apparently, a slim margin of young voters is still planning to vote for Johnson or Stein, and they're almost entirely white.
The GenForward survey, a project sponsored by the Black Youth Project, has been surveying nationally representative young adults on a monthly basis this election cycle, focusing on their feelings about political issues and how race shapes their understanding of the world. In its October voters report, it found support for third-party candidates to be spectacularly low among people between the ages of 18 and 30, particularly if they weren’t white. According to their numbers, among white voters Johnson had 15% support; Jill Stein, 4%. Meanwhile, only 7% of Latinx and 2% of African Americans were considering casting votes for the Libertarian candidate. The numbers for Stein are even more abysmal, hovering somewhere between 2% and 3% across the board.
I asked one of GenForward’s researchers, Matthew Lutting, about the discrepancy between what’s been reported in most polls—essentially, that the third-party vote will be massive and potentially disastrous—and the results of his survey. He suggested there may simply not have been large enough samples of youth of color included in other polls—which is odd, since there are likely more of them than white millennials in the United States. Lutting also told me that young whites are far more likely to dislike both major-party candidates. “Young adults of color tend to have more favorable views of Clinton,” he said.
What he couldn’t do, though, was explain to me why there’s such a discrepancy in the first place—though there are a couple of reasons young white voters might be more drawn to a third-party candidate. One may be a simple lack of perceived danger, the myopic worldview taken by people taught to believe their voices—and their tantrums—matter. As Terrence Newman, a comedian, wrote a couple months back on Twitter:
As Newman and others point out, the lesser of two evils is unfortunately a campaign-season cliche for a reason. A Trump presidency would validate some of the most violently racist and misogynistic voices in our country; the GOP also cherishes platforms that result in shrinking social services and restricted religious freedoms, the kinds of thing a more well-insulated person (upper middle-class; well-connected; white) might be able to hunker down and ignore for a few years.
Or, to take the concept to its most extreme and grandiose conclusion: the “left-contrarian arsonist crowd” that believes the chaos unleashed by Trump could be a good thing. Like many an alienated, educated white boy before them, the “anarchists” offered opinions often stated only in private or between the pages of Chuck Palahniuk novels—that voting for Trump is a good idea because they’d “rather see the empire burn to the ground under Trump, opening up at least a possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton.”
Despite communitarian preppers' (and Susan Sarandon’s) conviction that Trump will bring the revolution, neither Jill Stein nor Gary Johnson are candidates who have done much to genuinely appeal to young people of color. Johnson’s sole comments on Black Lives Matter have consisted of apologizing for having his “head in the sand”’—twice. And Stein, despite her progressive, immigrant-friendly platform, at times embodies the clueless and patronizing tone of a certain generation of the left, concerned more with the platform of anti-establishment politics than the alienating optics of filling a Philly soul food restaurant with eager white supporters.
Electoral politics are horrifying, and the electoral system is indeed broken. But with recent data placing third-party support so heavily on the choices of America’s young white people, it doesn’t seem like it’s idealism or conviction that’s propelling them so much as a useless, petulant desire to be heard, coming from people who just can’t believe the choices they’ve been dealt. Their protest isn’t to stay home on Election Day—it’s to participate fully in the Democratic process, as long as it’s completely on their terms and their moral smugness remains intact.