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Local college students and Mizzou professor offer window into millennial voters

A portion of the audience at a 2016 Washington University student debate. They also are among the millennial voters that candidates seek to attract.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

Reaching younger voters may be one benefit of using college campuses for presidential debates.  Which, no doubt, is one of the goals for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as they prepare to take the stage Sunday at Washington University.

A recent campus debate at Wash U between the college Republicans and Democrats offers a window into the candidates’ dilemma, as they seek to woo millennials, many of whom don’t align themselves with either major party.

Junior Christopher Hall, a Republican, explained to his audience of a couple hundred students why they are different from generations before.

“You are millennials and all of you defy the traditional left/right spectrum,” Hall said in his opening statement. “You, as a whole, believe in policies that make you neither Republican nor Democratic, but something new.”

During their 90-minute debate, the two-person teams — one Democrat, one Republican — tussled over such issues as health care, immigration and the economy.

But two names weren’t mentioned by either side:  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 

Instead, the students focused totally on issues.

Junior Lachlan Athanasiou, who delivered the Democratic opening statement, told the crowd that the debate “will not be about big government versus small government. This is about good government. It’s about effective government. What I’m talking about is results-based governing.”

Jimmy Loomis, president of the campus Young Democrats, explained why the debate ignored the presidential contenders.

“We want to give students an opportunity to know the issues, not the candidates," he said. "Because at the end of the day, it’s not the candidates who change their lives. It’s the issues.”

Study detects slight shift to Clinton

Mitchell McKinney, professor of communications at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has seen that same issue-oriented approach among the students he has been studying for years, as part of his examination of how millennials view politics.

“These voters are more persuadable and — we know this about millennial voters — are not as committed to an established party or political ideology,” McKinney said.

This election year, as he has in the past, McKinney is conducting scientific surveys of how the presidential debates are influencing college-age voters. Close to 500 students, including about 150 at Mizzou, are surveyed before and after each debate. 

The students watch the televised proceedings at campus watch sites and are encouraged to telegraph their views on social media such as Twitter.

Before the first televised debate Sept. 26, McKinney was struck by the low opinion that the students had of the leading contenders.

The professor explained, “Trump and Clinton have not yet been able to crack that nut, if you will, in the sense of, ‘How can we appeal to these voters?’ ”

But by the end of that debate, Clinton’s standing had improved dramatically. At key reason? Many of the students were turned off by Trump.

“Moving the needle if you will, was simply his performance in the debate, and it was moving in something of a negative way, away from him and pushing folks to Clinton,” he said.

Women students upset by Trump's behavior

McKinney said that women students, in particular, were offended.

After the student debate at Washington University, several women also laced their views on the issues with their disdain of Trump.


Take, for example, junior Anna Maurer: “As much as you can understand Trump, I am sure there are policies he believes in, but I cannot decipher them from his language. I do feel like Secretary Clinton has a comprehensive sense of policy. I wouldn’t be embarrassed if she represents us to the world.”

Meanwhile, Washington University junior Max Handler, a Republican, is critical of both.

“I don’t believe either candidate is particularly strong on the economy. I think that Hillary Clinton’s liberal policies are generally things I don’t really agree with,” Handler said. “And I think that Donald Trump, when he talks about policy, he talks about all the things he wants government to do for you.”

Mizzou professor McKinney said that if the election is close, the millennial vote will likely determine who wins the White House.

That’s a point that student Christopher Hall sought to make at last week’s Wash U campus debate: “It is you, each and every one of you, who will define what this Republic will become.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.