HEMPSTEAD, NY —
The College Republicans and Democrats of Hofstra University, close to New York City, don’t have very much in common — at least not politically. But in a presidential campaign season marred by controversies and negative ads, they remain civil, standing alongside one another on the same grassy “stage,” beside the campus’ outdoor sculpture garden.
Separating the two sides is a freshman, still too young to vote, donning a swept-back magenta hairdo, bald eagle T-shirt and stars-and-stripes shorts. He is a Donald Trump and “build the wall” supporter, but his vote will have to wait four more years.
While the four young voting-eligible students remain as far apart on the issues that will affect the future of their country as the party establishments they represent, they still share one important quality: an invigorating passion for politics, and a drive to vote on November 8.
But the same can’t be said for all their peers at Hofstra — the site of the first 2016 U.S. presidential debate — or millennials nationwide, where a growing dissatisfaction with the state of the campaign and their choices for president make a low turnout rate a very real possibility.
Historically, the numbers aren’t impressive either — 50 percent among eligible millennials in 2008, 46 percent in 2012 — signalling a pattern that does not bode well for the generation, all 62.9 million of them, despite flexing nearly identical electoral power as baby boomers.
For the political groups on Hofstra’s campus, it’s been a struggle to generate excitement.
“We would ask people who are coming up to our general area, ‘oh, are you here for the Young Dems?’ and they go, ‘oh, I don't like politics,’” explained Democrats of Hofstra University President Jesse Saunders. “So there has been this really big effort in our club, and I believe in the Republicans as well, and even the third parties on campus, to really try and push people to understand that you don't have to be a political science major — that politics is something that will affect everyone.”
But like politics or not, the discussions on campus, according to College Republicans President Nathaniel Aron, have been more civil overall than the general election. “The fact that we are learning here, that we are all equals right now, really allows for discourse on campus most of the time.”
More than 7,000 students at Hofstra University entered a lottery to attend Monday night's presidential debate, but only a few hundred were granted. (B. Allen/VOA)
To understand millennials’ lack of enthusiasm toward the 2016 election is to grasp their dissatisfaction with a political climate that has quickly deteriorated and become increasingly negative.
To this day, many of the most passionate young voters among the Bernie Sanders camp — whose greatest source of support came from millennial voters — along with #NeverTrump students across campuses nationwide, retain a tainted image of the remaining candidates, following a brutal and prolonged primary season.
“Honestly, people are going to the polls because they don't want a certain candidate to get it,” said Summer Holmes, a reluctant voter. “There's no enthusiasm. I'm doing this so he doesn't or she doesn't get it.”
“[Clinton] seems to be banking on the dislike of her opponent as being enough to win this election,” added student Bernie Dennler, a Clinton supporter, “but hating Donald Trump is not enough to necessarily drive people to the polls.”
The same logic can be applied to the other side.
“Hillary is a liar,” said Mary Manetta, who is voting for Trump in her first election. Manetta likes Trump for his business experience, but says she is not all too concerned what happens in the end.
“At first, I didn’t think any of the options were really that great this year, but it will be fine,” she laughed. “No matter what, it will be fine.”
WATCH: Ramon Taylor talks to Hofstra's millennials about who they'll vote for in the upcoming election
Top priorities ignored
Still, other dissatisfied voters cite an inter-generation gap and distrust that the issues they care about will actually be heard.
“They are more interested in the economy and what's going to happen for them” said Rosanna Perotti, Chair of Hofstra University’s Department of Political Science. “They would like to see something done with the environment. They are tired of arguing whether or not global warming is manmade. It's just beside the point for them. It's their world and they are going to inherit it.”
Many students on Hofstra’s 240-acre campus, including undecided voters, agree.
“We are the future generation and future taxpayers and so if we are not taking care of, then future generations might fail economically and probably socially too,” said Hofstra student Enoch Lee.
It’s a reason why students like Anthony Iafrate, along with 27 percent of adults aged 18-34 have strayed from the mainstream to support a third party candidate.
“I want to go with the candidate that represents me,” said Iafrate, a Gary Johnson supporter. “I think it's just truly a great thing in a democracy that you can have people that represent you, and it doesn't have to be any certain party. You can pick whoever you want.”
But others that might theoretically support Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein on the issues feel conflicted, especially if they feel their vote might take away from the candidates with the greatest statistical chance of winning.
Hofstra University students in Dr. Rosanna Perotti's class discuss the upcoming presidential debate and election. (B. Allen/VOA)
Robert Paul II, who genuinely likes the Libertarian, can’t quite get himself to vote for him in November.
“At the end of the day we’re just going to have a Trump or Clinton administration next year, that’s what’s going to happen” said Robert Paul II, who will be voting in his second presidential election. “My hope was and is that Gary Johnson or Jill Stein somehow makes enough of a dent that there is potential in the next 12-ish years for a third-party to win one day, or at least in my lifetime.”
Three Donald Trump supporters, students at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, pose for a photo in the dining hall ahead of Monday's presidential debate on campus (B. Allen/VOA)
If a millennial passion meter for the 2016 election could be determined by Hofstra students’ interest in its Monday evening presidential debate, we wouldn’t be writing this story. According to Newsday, more than 7,000 students applied for the opportunity, of which a few hundred lucky winners were announced.
Among those in attendance, Bernie Dennler — a political science and journalism double major who also manages the university’s radio station — is very enthusiastic. He feels millennials are often discredited for taking the election lightly.
“We understand that you don't necessarily have to be excited about who is going to be the president of the United States, that this is not necessarily an exciting thing,” Dennler said. “It's a very practical thing with a very real consequences.”
Come election day, Dennler hopes young voters like himself will think not only of the candidate they prefer, but the world they wish to live in.
“Do they want to live in the world where Donald Trump has been president of the United States for four or eight years, or do they want to live in a world where Hillary Clinton has been President for four or eight years?” he asked.
“I suspect I know which way other young people like myself will go, but we will see on election day.”
Brian Allen contributed to this report.