How Will the Occupy Wall Street Protesters Vote?
There is a historic generation gap when it comes to voting, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Young voters favor Obama by a 61 to 37 percent margin, while voters over 65 favor Romney by 54 to 41 percent. Millennials, who were dubbed the "Obama generation" in 2008, are slightly less enchanted with him than they were back then.
Does Occupy Wall Street have anything to do with this waning support? Despite the fact that the protesters span several generations, OWS is undeniably a youth-led movement that's disenchanted with the president.
Judging by a few trips to Zuccotti Park this weekend, young protesters do seem to be engaged with electoral politics, although the flavor and enthusiasm varied depending on their commitment to the movement. The political leanings of "full-time occupiers" I spoke to ranged wildly, from fiscal libertarians to Green Party enthusiasts to straight-up anarchists. There was a common refrain, though: Most of them weren't excited about voting for Obama.
"If nothing else, Obama has shown us just how corrupt politics are," says Brian, a 27-year-old full-timer from North Carolina. "We need a new voting system, a different way to fund it.”
Justin, 38, says he is "actually in the Tea Party. But sadly they’ve turned into a bunch of bumbling idiots. They sold us out to Congress.” He's found a more authentic movement in downtown Manhattan. He doesn't like Obama, but would consider Ron Paul because "he wants to end the wars."
But when it came to young visitors passing through rather than setting up camp, dozens I spoke to were planning to grudgingly cast a vote to re-elect Obama.
“I’m going to vote," says Meredith, 18, who will be a first-time voter. "But it won’t be for a candidate, it’ll be against a candidate. Even if I had [been able to] vote for Obama, it would have been against McCain.”
Owen, 20, says he's not happy, but still planning to vote for Obama. “If you abstain from voting, you’re not helping anything. He hasn’t done what he said he would, but he’s better than the other candidates.”
Samantha, 18, had a similar response: “I’m going to vote for [Obama] because there is no other option. I trust him.”
Kristin, 21, says Obama definitely has her vote, “but there needs to be some drastic improvement. He means well, but he’s been too nice.”
It's possible the overall dip in Obama fervor has little to do with Occupy Wall Street's grievances, says Michael Dimock, one of the authors of new the Pew report. "While Millennials tend to be more liberal on social issues and are most trusting of the government, they're not necessarily more anti-business," Dimock says. "That's not one of the attitudes that cleaves generationally. When they think of business leaders, they may not necessarily think of the CEO of Citicorp. They might be thinking about Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg."
In Pew's first survey on Occupy Wall Street, millennials didn't favor the movement in greater numbers than all but the oldest generation—even if they were the most devoted members of it. Dimock says young people's dip in support for Obama has less to do with the message of Occupy Wall Street and more to do with the recession and broken campaign promises.
“There was a potential for something different—that’s what Obama ran on," says Heather, a 27-year-old from Western Massachusetts who supports Occupy Wall Street and voted for Obama the first time around. “A lot of the stuff he’s done is very ‘Bush’.”
Then there's the question of a third party. Gabby, a 19-year-old OWS fan, hopes for an independent candidate "the way you hope Santa is real. You look at Ralph Nader, and that didn't work." Others, like 23-year-old Ana, who isn't "a fan of electoral politics" and believes "more in grassroots movements like the 99 Percenters," would be open to the possibility. But despite these tepid responses, there was an overall sense of optimism—denial?—that has come to define this generation.
The most recent Pew numbers reflect as much. "Millennials tend to be more upbeat about a lot of things, from the role of government to racial politics," says Dimock, "even though by many objective measures, they have taken the brunt of the economic downturn. They're not quite as cynical about government's capacity to perform effectively."
Indeed, the feeling of movement, of frustration, of something seems to be staving off young people's cynicism even more. At least a third of the 38 Occupy Wall Street supporters I spoke with felt energized by the movement itself, even if they weren't tuned into some of its more wonky undercurrents.
“[The protests] show that people are finally getting frustrated enough to get politicians to change," Meredith says. "And honestly, Obama will be easier to change than any Republican.”