Keeping up with politics: How the 2016 presidential race is gaining younger followers

Annabelle Lee and Allen Haugh


As the nation begins to look ahead to another election cycle, politicians and outsiders are pushing to capture the public’s attention earlier and more completely than ever before. With drama-filled debates and increasing social media engagement, young people – a group generally thought to be disinterested in politics – are tuning into elections in a way they haven’t before.

 “I’m finding my students have watched the debates. They are interested, I think, especially the ones on the verge of voting. I think people are more interested than they were four years ago,” said government teacher Lance Goldberg.

Goldberg emphasizes current events in his government classes, often assigning debate-watching and following newsworthy events as homework. He then encourages open discussion about the results in order to get students to form their own opinions about candidates and relevant issues.

“The debate was like three hours long, but I think that some interesting points were made. It was fun watching everybody go after each other,” sophomore Vini Munshi said.

Increasingly, though, Goldberg is finding he doesn’t even have to make debate watching homework in order for students to be interested. He largely attributes this fact to Donald Trump, who has turned the race on its head with his blunt attitude and unconventional style.

“Let’s be honest: Donald Trump is a very well-known figure. People have very strong opinions about him because he’s not willing to hold back what he has to say. That’s a very engaging kind of person to be running for President. He brings a reality show outlook to the Presidential election that we’re not used to,” Goldberg said.

Despite his charisma, Trump is a political “outsider,” having had no experience in government. Traditionally, this has been problematic for presidential candidates. This year, though, Trump and fellow political outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have been the candidates to beat on the Republican side. In fact, many base their support for one of these candidates on the fact that they haven’t held office and aren’t traditional politicians.

 “I support Carly Fiorina because I think she could produce a new perspective, and I don’t think she’ll be corrupt or anything. She rose above in the debates and had some very good ideas,” senior Nimrita Singh said.

Fiorina, Trump and Carson are just three of 15 Republican candidates, the largest pool of presidential candidates in recent memory. The race has gotten increasingly intense as well, with leading candidates including Trump, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz trading attack ads and verbal insults.

The debates so far have put this aggression on full display. The debates – two Republican, one Democratic – have been advertised with an air of rivalry typical of sporting events. The popularity of the debates reflected that attitude: Nielsen viewership data showed the viewership of the first Republican debate rivaled that of the Patriots-Steelers season opener earlier this year. With expectations high, support for various candidates has often surged and collapsed on the back of debate performances.

Junior Chris Ware regularly keeps up with current events, especially the upcoming presidential election. Politics has been a long-standing interest of his, and watching the debates helps him learn about all the candidates and decide who he likes best.

“I took a liking to Marco Rubio because of how articulate he was in the debates. I think the fact that he’s charismatic and young and Latino can help break the stereotype that the Republican Party is a party for old white guys,” Ware said.

However, the drama doesn’t end when the debate does. From the moment cameras are rolling, social media is abuzz with instant fact-checking and commentary. Trump’s live tweeting of the first Democratic primary debate – filled with put-downs and mockery of the Democrats, his fellow Republicans and the media – allowed him to seize media and voters’ attention and make himself one of the stars of the night. Trump gained 60,000 Twitter followers in two hours, more than any of the Democratic candidates, who were actually participating in the debate.

¨I support Trump because I think he’s shown that he’s strong. He’s said a lot of crazy stuff but I think he’s shown that he has a clear vision,” junior Antonio Anton said.

The Internet and social media are quickly becoming popular platforms for all candidates to share their campaigns with the world. While Trump takes to Twitter, Democratic frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are also taking advantage of this constant connectivity. Sanders actively used platforms like Facebook to organize events and rallies, while Clinton’s public relations team began curating an Instagram page.

¨Facebook lets me get closer to the candidates I’m interested in. I found out through Facebook that Bernie Sanders was having a rally in Springfield, which was awesome,” junior Laurie Yousman said.

This opportunity to always stay connected creates an environment where support can be gained and fostered simply by constantly appearing on people’s news feeds. However, it also attracts the attention of younger people who may use social media more frequently than others, helping candidates establish support among a younger demographic.

At the high school, students are already starting to tune in and find their political identities. A poll of students found that, among respondents, three in four already identified with a political party. Nearly half indicated that they followed news through some form of “new” media: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or a news app.

Young people and new voters are often the ones caught in the middle during these transitional periods in government, as they are shaping their worldview and starting to consider their political identities. Both social media and other external influences have an impact on how students think about the world and their own opinions.

However, in the end, it is up to individuals to determine their own political involvement and how they interact with the increasing amount of information.

Students in particular will have to face this decision. And, as in the past, some are still choosing not to get involved.

“I think politics is pretty dumb. Can’t we all just get along? I mean, I see the things on television, SNL did some things that were interesting. I don’t think it affects me on a personal level,” freshman Tim Scalzo said.

As the election continues, students will have the opportunity to learn more about the ideas of the candidates and inform their own opinions about who they want to see in office.