They were strangers in line at the Donald Trump rally in Costa Mesa last week, four politically inclined millennials equally divided in their support of the Republican real estate mogul and Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
As they waited, the talk turned to issues.
Student loan debt, terrorism, illegal immigration …
The line inched forward. The sun dropped. A breeze picked up.
… Climate change, equality, guns.
Brianna Collins and her twin sister, Sydney Collins, both Trump supporters, agreed with each other that people should be able to own guns. Chuck Valdez, a Sanders supporter, agreed with the sisters that climate change is happening. They all agreed with Paul Pearce, a Sanders supporter, who said there is too much money in politics.
They soon agreed to get pizza together, and even agreed on the toppings – ham and pineapple.
And they agreed on this: The political system is broken, and partisanship isn’t helping.
If shared by others of their generation, that last agreement might matter a lot.
Millennials, the 18-to-34 generation identified last week by Pew Research as America’s biggest cohort (bigger even than the baby boomers), could have an outsized impact on the upcoming election. Not only are millennials a growing demographic group, but they also are registering to vote at a rapid rate.
Their impact could be felt as soon as the June 7 California primary. A win for Trump could put him over the top as the GOP nominee. A win for Sanders could help him shape the party platform at the Democratic National Convention.
Both are political outsiders; both have disrupted their respective parties.
And, as potential agents of change, both are drawing strong opinions from millennials.
Morley Winograd, a senior fellow at USC and author of three books on the millennial generation, believes the current campaign cycle is playing out as an echo of the “hope and change” election won by Barrack Obama in 2008. Big causes, Winograd said, are more important for voters right now than the personalities of individual candidates.
For millennials, he added, a key cause is changing the existing political system.
“The system hasn’t been very good to their generation,” Winograd said. “Unprecedented student loan debt, the housing collapse … they see it as a creation of the banks, Wall Street and the system.”
Of the five remaining presidential candidates, none has tapped into the millennial generation like Sanders.
The Vermont senator made single-payer health care and free college tuition early staples of his stump speeches, and he found traction with millennials.
A Field Poll conducted last month found that 77 percent of likely voters between the ages of 18 and 29 in California preferred Sanders, while just 18 percent of that voting block preferred Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Sanders beat Clinton by 15 points among voters ages 30-39.
Valdez, 18, who attended the Trump rally in Costa Mesa, said he supports Sanders because of the candidate’s consistency on a couple of key issues – student debt and health care.
“I think health care is a human right,” he said. “To deny anyone health care is disgusting.”
Valdez registered as a no-party preference for this, his first election. That’s common.
No-party preference has been California’s fastest-growing registration group during the Obama era. Since 2008, the category has jumped from 19.4 percent to 24 percent of California’s registered voters. During that same period, Democratic registration has grown less than 1 percent and Republican registration has dropped 5.9 percent.
Millennials tend to register online, according to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. In 2014, just 425,220 California voters in that age group registered online. So far this year, the number is more than 890,000.
Between 2008 and the beginning of the year, the percentage of registered voters overall has jumped from 67.7 percent to 70.2 percent.
Dean Logan, the Los Angeles County registrar, said since the beginning of the year the county has registered 100,000 voters ages 18 to 29.
“It’s particularly high,” he said. “It’s encouraging, but that’s just the first step in the process. The next is whether they actually show up and vote.”
Chris Noble, 33, of Culver City said he wants to vote because he wants to change the system. He thinks Trump will do that.
“At the very least, it is like taking a stick of dynamite and blowing up the system,” Noble said. “It’s the bare minimum I’d expect.”
And 19-year-old Zach Smith of Hemet said he’s weary of the left-right divide. He views Trump as a unifier.
But among millennials for Trump, recent polling suggests that Noble and Smith are rarities.
In the April Field Poll, Trump was viewed favorably by just 12 percent to 15 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 39. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas fared only slightly better, winning just over 19 percent of people age 18 to 29, and just 25 percent of people between the ages of 30 and 39.
Trump struggles to connect with many millennials because of what they see as his harsh rhetoric, including calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and derogatory remarks about women.
“The (Trump) hostility toward certain groups doesn’t play well with millennials,” USC’s Winograd said. “Cruz has been a bit more effective in talking about college affordability.”
Clinton struggles with millennials – at least when compared with Sanders – partly because she’s unabashadly tied to the old-school party system, according to Winograd. But her campaign is counting on eventually wooing Sanders’ supporters, and Winograd noted that her speeches recently have been reaching out to younger voters ahead of the party convention and the general election.
In an email to supporters Wednesday, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote that Clinton would continue Obama’s legacy – a legacy put into play when Obama, the candidate of hope and change, captured two of every three millennial voters in the 2008 election.
“We’re going to help millions of students get a good education without going into crushing debt,” Palmieri wrote.
“We’re going to fight for common sense gun safety legislation and we’re going to make sure that your paycheck reflects your hard work.”