In era of polarity, millennial voters find common ground

Supporters cheer as Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday at Memminger Auditorium in Charleston. Sanders has tapped into issues that are popular with young voters.

When it comes to drugs, gay rights and other social issues, millennial voters in South Carolina are often on the same page. But whether their voices will make a difference in the state’s primaries remains to be seen.

The Post and Courier interviewed about two dozen voters in the 18-35 age bracket this week and found many shared similar concerns and viewpoints on social issues, regardless of party affiliation. That appears to fit with a recent USA Today/Rock The Vote poll, which found that a majority of young voters are socially liberal and fiscally moderate or conservative.

Take Anna Chapman, chairwoman of the College Republicans club at the University of South Carolina. She said her main concerns revolve around “the debt and spending, taxes, what we’re going to do about Social Security and Medicare.” She also sees herself and most of her young peers as “definitely more pro-gay marriage, definitely for ... marijuana legalization, and pro-criminal justice reform.”

Amanda Nagle, a Democrat on campus, agreed. While her friends in both parties disagree on the details, “most students share social values,” she said.

Young voters across partisan lines tend to be more concerned with addressing economic problems, education and health care reform, according to a Harvard Public Opinion Project poll reported in December.

Palmetto State millennials echoed that point in interviews. Their top concerns: college debt, national debt, education and economic inequities, as well as Wall Street’s influence on Capitol Hill.

Whether their views will shake up the field in the South Carolina primaries, as other young voters have done in New Hampshire and Iowa, depends on whether the group, which makes up a quarter of the state’s voters, shows up to the polls.

The millennial generation includes people born between 1980-1996. They came of age at a time of ongoing foreign conflicts, economic hardships and political gridlock, influencing their views in myriad ways.

Many are struggling to pay off college debt, which has become a top concern for millennial voters nationwide. Taylor Mason, a 24-year-old Republican in Greenville, said he wished the issue had been discussed more during the race.

“I can’t think of any other industry that can raise their prices by 15 percent a year without providing any additional services or any guaranteed outcomes, beside the higher education system,” he said.

Matt Stuemke, 32, of Sullivan’s Island, showed up to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rally Tuesday at the Memminger Auditorium. He hoped to hear more ideas about making college tuition more affordable and health care reform — issues that have been drawing millennials to Sanders’ rallies in droves. The senator, though a political independent from Vermont, is running in the Democratic primary.

“Bernie is the only one getting me excited right now,” he said.

Joe Semsar, 28, of Mount Pleasant, said he’s volunteering for Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign because he “is more of a unifier and less of a divider.”

“I think there is a growing body of young people that are concerned about the financial health of the country,” he said. “We need somebody in the White House that takes those issues very serious.”

Phil Ford, 28, of Florence, said he supports Hillary Clinton because “she has the knowledge and experience to grow the Affordable Care Act into universal health care for all people,” he said, adding, “I’ve been without health insurance before, and it can be a crushing debt.”

Millennials can be passionate about their issues, but that doesn’t always translate to the polls. Overall, young people represented just 13 percent of voters in 2008.

“It’s one of the age groups that sort of votes, historically, at the lowest turnout rates. So I think that is a challenge for that group,” said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston.

Millennials tend to skew Democratic, even in South Carolina. About 63 percent of those ages 18-35 who voted in 2008 did so in the state’s Democratic primary, while the Republican primary drew about 36 percent.

Chapman, of USC, said she’s been trying to encourage more young Republicans to vote in this election by handing out registration forms and educating her peers about absentee ballots.

“I think it takes what I’m doing on a massive level,” she said. “I know that if people in my age group voted at a rate that older people do, I think we might see different candidates.”

Lee Hartsell, 25, of Mount Pleasant, said he thinks Sanders’ youthful following could influence the Democratic Party to address millennials’ top concerns.

“I think that the whole point of standing up is, yeah, get enough people, and they’ll listen, because they want to keep their jobs,” he said.

Scott Hoffmon, a Winthrop political science professor, said it’s unlikely the youth vote will propel a candidate to victory in South Carolina. But a strong turnout means they could begin to see their views reflected in both parties.

“Once they realize their strength, they will begin to change the course of politics, because politicians will have no choice but to speak to their interests.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail