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Capital Beat: Once Democrats, New Hampshire’s young left-leaning voters now march to their own beats

  • Democratic Congressional District 1 Candidate Chris Pappas addresses UNH students in Durham at a candidate forum ahead of the state primary, Sept. 4, 2018 Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Democratic Congressional District 1 Candidate Maura Sullivan addresses UNH students in Durham at a candidate forum ahead of the state primary, Sept. 4, 2018 Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt



Monitor staff
Monday, September 10, 2018

The 80-minute forum was near a close, and one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District decided to stray from the pack.

“So guys, it wasn’t that long ago that I was sitting in a room like this listening to a bunch of Democratic politicians tell me how they were going to fix our problems and save the world,” Terrance O’Rourke told the crowd of University of New Hampshire students crammed into a Durham conference room Tuesday.

“It didn’t happen,” he continued. “Matter of fact, things got worse. The Democratic Party is more beholden to corporate interests, more beholden to Wall Street, further right than it’s ever been.”

The front row, by now oversaturated with tired, tested turns of phrases honed over weeks by candidates, straightened somewhat. Heads snapped up; nods broke out. O’Rourke pressed on.

“So we have this opportunity with Donald Trump,” he said, calling him “the most despicable human being that’s ever occupied the office of the presidency.” More nods. “But this isn’t just an opportunity to defeat Donald Trump and defeat the Republicans. This is an opportunity to redefine the Democratic Party. Redefine it back to what it used to be and what it’s supposed to stand for.”

He didn’t pause, but the crowd clapped anyway.

Perhaps it was a calculated attempt to stand out, made in the twilight of an 11-candidate primary. Perhaps it was targeted to the venue: a candidate event put on not by the Democratic Party, but by NextGen, an avowedly progressive group without party ties. But for the group of 20-something undecided primary voters milling around the cocktail tables after the event, the comments seemed to strike a chord.

“I don’t consider myself a Democrat,” summarized Jon Brown, a senior from Stratham. “A lot of us are ... unamused with the establishment.”

He’s not alone. As left-
leaning activists rush to mobilize millennials ahead of the New Hampshire primaries, organizers are increasingly noting a trend: While many young voters are fired up for Democratic candidates, few are excited about the party they speak for.

“I would say I’m a progressive first, I’m a leftist second, and I’m a Democrat third,” said Elizabeth Walsh, a senior from Princeton, Mass. Others have put up even more distance.

According to Ben Wessel, director of NextGen Rising, the national arm of the progressive organization aiming to mobilize voters, the trend is reflected across the country. “Something like 40 to 50 percent of the people that we’re registering are choosing no party affiliation or are unaffiliated or independent,” Wessel said, citing data from the organization’s own efforts.

And Pew research supports that observation. Historical data from the organization’s Research Survey Center indicates that among millennial voters – those born between 1981 and 1996 – 44 percent identified as independent in 2017, up from 34 percent in 2004. That’s higher than the percentage that identify as Democrats, which in 2017 hovered at 35 percent and hasn’t changed much in 13 years.

In New Hampshire, clear numbers are hard to come by. The state’s voter file segments people by location but not age. But according to Kristen Morris, media manager for NextGen’s New Hampshire segment, it’s as much a dynamic in the Granite State as anywhere.

“I’m definitely seeing it this year on the ground, as we’re asking students and young people to vote this time,” she said.

Causes abound. Many young voters view it as lingering resentment from the 2016 nomination process, seen by many to have favored Hillary Clinton to the detriment of new ideas. “I think that the way the Democrats as a whole went about things marginalized a lot of people who wanted to support Bernie Sanders,” said Cassidy Metcalf, a freshman from Durham.

Others see it in more ideological terms, claiming, as O’Rourke has, that the party has drifted away from its progressive roots for decades.

For Ray Buckley, the chairman of the state Democratic Party? This is nothing particularly unusual.

“This is not a new phenomenon here in New Hampshire,” he said in an interview. “In fact, for many decades, we have known very well that a significant portion of undeclared voters were for all intents and purposes Democratic voters.”

The state party has long maintained around a 27 to 28 percent registered voter share in New Hampshire, but won much higher percentages in key races, Buckley said. They don’t take it personally, he added.

“Our focus really hasn’t been to convince people to be a member of the Democratic Party,” he said. “Our role has been to convince them to vote for the Democratic candidates.”

It’s a strategic choice – to convince voters on the candidates, not the party – that he says they’ve made for decades.

But many young left-
leaning voters themselves say their ideological concerns are not just cosmetic. And their votes, while certain to be for Democrats, may come grudgingly and primarily as an extension of their feelings against the president.

“I think people feel that they have to (vote Democrat),” said Hannah Matillano, a senior from Concord. “We’re kind of at a point in our history where things are getting dire.”

Emmett Soldati, a 30-year-old from Somersworth, agreed. A left-leaning local organizer, he finds party identification antithetical to how he thinks grassroots politics should operate.

“I think the problem is Donald Trump has represented such an extremist threat to democracy that it’s forcing conversations like this where people can’t vote their conscience anymore,” he said. “Because you’re told if you sit this one out, you are responsible for every white supremacist action that happens.”