Candidates Long To Know What Young Voters Want. Why Not Just Ask?

Nov 15, 2015

In 2008, one voting bloc in particular made a huge difference in the presidential election: young people. Young voters were a crucial part of the coalition that propelled President Obama to victory then.

But what about now? What issues matter to young voters this time around — and which candidates are doing the best job so far of speaking to those concerns?

To find out, earlier this week NPR's Michel Martin headed to Drake University in Des Moine, Iowa. There, she moderated a live panel with three politically active young people: Brandi Dye, a sophomore; Hector Salamanca Arroyo, a DREAMer whose family is from Mexico and who hopes one day to be eligible to vote; and Raymond Starks, a senior who supports the Republican party.

To hear the full event, click the link below. And below that, you'll find firsthand glimpses of the night as it unfolded.

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Back to politics now. In the run up to the 2016 elections, we thought it would be interesting to look at a particular voting block that made a huge difference in 2008 - young people. Young voters were an important part of the electorate that propelled Barack Obama to victory in the last two presidential contests, so we wondered what issues mattered to them this time around and which candidates are doing the best job so far of speaking to those concerns. To find out, I headed to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It's one of the most politically engaged campuses in the country. As we mentioned, a Democratic presidential debate is being held there tonight. And I moderated a live panel this week with three politically active young people. Brandi Dye is a sophomore at Drake. Hector Salamanca Arroyo is a DREAMer, which means he came here as an infant. He's not eligible to vote, but he hopes to one day. And Raymond Starks is a Drake senior who supports the Republican Party. And I started by asking another of our panelists, Drake professor Rachel Caufield, about what she describes as the young voters catch-22.


RACHEL CAUFIELD: If young voters don't feel as though anybody's listening to them, they don't show up. And when they don't show up, nobody listens to them.

MARTIN: Is that why - was that the critical piece - I mean, there are two candidates in the recent - well, recent past who are deemed to have really paid a particular attention to younger voters. One was John F. Kennedy and one was Barack Obama. So was it because they were themselves young?

CAUFIELD: I think that's a big part of it.

MARTIN: Was it part of it? OK, let me ask you this. Is it the style of communication, or is it the actual substance of the communication. Is it the issues, or is it the way they choose to communicate?

CAUFIELD: I think it's a combination of both. Both of them were young dynamic people out on the campaign trail. They understood what it meant to be young in that particular era. They were also in both cases able to take advantage of new technologies in a way that previous campaigns had not. New technologies are usually adopted first by younger voters.

MARTIN: So Raymond, who you got?

RAYMOND STARKS: I'm a Jeb Bush guy.


STARKS: And I'm very proud of that.


STARKS: You know, I came to this conclusion because I guess I'm - I would say I'm a conservative, but I'm not - I'm not a Trump conservative. I don't want an outsider. I want somebody that knows what they're doing and can show up on day one and has the skills to do so.

MARTIN: Brandi, is there somebody you think is talking to you right now as a - wherever you are in your life and whatever your subjects are that compel you the most - is there anybody speaking to you directly now?

BRANDI DYE: Right now, it's been Bernie Sanders. I recently got to see him speak when he was in Des Moines. And just the way he talks and he's fashion, and I respect that. But he also has that very unformal passion. He gets fired up and he gets excited. And he gets excited about things that matter to me.

MARTIN: Like what?

DYE: The biggest one is college affordability. I, you know, go to work every day and I have to worry about that type of thing. You know, there are some people who don't, and that's great for them. But the majority of us do, and I think it's outrageous how much college costs, yet at the same time we're taught that it's a necessity. So I think college affordability is just really important to me because that's where I'm going to be.

MARTIN: Brandi, you were telling us earlier that you don't necessarily consider yourself a millennial. Is that about right? Is it...

DYE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And how is that, because you're an old soul or because other things are more important to you?

DYE: I've read different things about the definition of millennial and because, like, we're kind of still living it, it hasn't quite defined yet. But, you know, I'm right on that cusp. I was born in '96, so I can kind of be claimed as an older millennial or a little bit younger, kind of the next generation coming up. And I think the apathy is, like, the key characteristic everybody talks about when it comes to millennials. And I don't know, I guess around me and my peers, I don't feel apathetic.

MARTIN: You know, Hector, I obviously skipped over you for a reason...


MARTIN: ...And that is because you are not eligible to vote yet. And do you mind telling us why that is?

ARROYO: Definitely. The main reason why I cannot vote is because I'm ineligible by law. I am an undocumented immigrant who is a recipient of the differed action for childhood arrival program that President Obama created specifically to help those who have grown up in the United States and have spent a significant amount of their childhood here and seek to go to a higher education institute and participate in their community. So for myself, I am heavily involved in politics yet, ironically, I cannot participate. And for myself, although I can't vote, although I cannot participate fully, I recognize that I still have a voice. I would not be on this panel if I didn't have a voice. And because of that ability to have a voice and because this country allows me to have a voice, there are a lot of DREAMers now who are working on presidential campaigns. So DREAMers have power. DREAMers, although they might not have a status, they can still change the dialogue.

MARTIN: Raymond, I was going to ask you this. You know, back -this was a little before your time - but back in the gen - I just read about this. I didn't know about firsthand - but young Republicans were more visible in American politics. For example, like, the teen heartthrob was Alex Keaton, the character played by Michael J. Fox on...

CAUFIELD: I remember that well.

MARTIN: ...The sitcom "Family Ties." So - but, I mean, is there a similar kind of - I remember when Sarah Palin, for example, was on the ticket, a lot of young conservative women said oh, finally, there's a role model for me. Is there somebody like that, who's a role model for you? I guess really what I'm asking is why is it that the people we think of as really gauging the younger voters tend to be on the Democratic side?

STARKS: You know, I think when we look at the process, we don't see a lot of the people that are doing a lot on the inside. One of my role models was Speaker Ryan. He works through the process. He did the things he needed to do, and he got where he is today. I don't think necessarily when we look at young Republicans that they're not there. All of the younger Republicans I know, they're volunteering for campaigns if they're very involved in politics or they're working in business because they're conservative on fiscal issues. So in the right, you have people like Marco Rubio and you have people like Paul Ryan, who are younger and who do understand what it's like to go to college and whatnot. So I feel they're probably the voices of the upcoming new Republican generation.

MARTIN: So you think though your peers see themselves as younger voters, or are they more likely to see themselves as Republicans?

STARKS: Honestly, I think they're more likely to vote on their own interests. They see themselves as businesspeople. They see themselves as young professionals. I don't think they necessarily see themselves as younger voters. I think they more see themselves as here's where I am now; here's where I want to be in 10 years, and how am I going to get there?

MARTIN: That was just a little taste of our NPR event Focus on the Youth Vote. It was held at Drake University in Des Moines earlier this week in partnership with Iowa Public Radio. And you can listen to the entire event online at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.