After the Republican debates ended on Thursday night, one thing was certain: They lived up to the expectations their bloodthirsty audience had going in to the event. The internet was immediately ablaze with amateur pundits clowning on every significant and minor gaffe they could, the most famous of which being when Donald Trump, after getting called out by moderator Megyn Kelly for referring to women in the past as “pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” retorted, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” The debate may not have been Jon Stewart’s-finale-episode important, but it was viewed by a record 24 million people and was at least one of the must-see television events of the week.

But imagine you’re 14 right now, observing this media circus we’re calling an election cycle. What you’ve seen of the political process so far may have you feeling like, “Wow, why would I want to vote for any of these candidates?” As a potential future leader of America, you’re probably not witnessing this trainwreck and then saying to yourself, “I can’t wait to be a part of this in four years!”

With Donald Trump’s statistically front-running campaign built on reveling in the worst parts of what it is to be a white male in America (and turning more deplorably racist and sexist at every turn), why in the world do we expect anyone to think deferentially of the democratic process, much less teenagers who live in a world polluted with distractions?


For comparison, when I was 15 years old, I was a sophomore at Georgetown Day High School in 1993, and my favorite class was American Government and Politics. There was something about being in the class just after the election year of 1992 that was amazing. The first quarter of the year was full of conversations like, “So yesterday in class, we learned about the Electoral College; now let’s look back at Bill Clinton and George Bush campaigning in Ohio and see why that was important.”

Not to mention the fact that cultural stalwarts like MTV’s Rock the Vote and Arsenio Hall had begun driving home a very potent brand of pop intellectualism, making it hip to know what was going on in the world:

It was an incredible time.

And it’s not like we didn’t have a kooky wing-nut looking to overtake traditional party politics in 1992, either…


But compared to Donald Trump, H. Ross Perot was a fairly normal politician.

Similar to Trump, Perot was a billionaire; only instead of using bluster to tap into fears about race and the loss of American exceptionalism, Perot’s platform dealt with concerns about the rising federal budget deficit and standing against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And like Trump, Perot led early in the opinion polls, with 39% of Americans supporting him as late as June. However, after mysteriously dropping out of the race in July due to his unsubstantiated belief that the Republican Party wanted to disrupt his daughter’s wedding#, he only garnered 18% of the popular vote after returning to the election two months later.

What separates Perot from Trump though, is that even though he was a cantankerous rebel who wanted to oust the traditional system, he nevertheless helped spur the country’s interest in politics and kept us talking about the important issues. Where Trump steals eyeballs with his unfettered braggadocio, Perot forced actual political debates and kept the issues in the spotlight.

Perot’s 1992 campaign platform could still stir fascinating political conversations in 1993. Perot’s fears about the budget dovetailed well into conversations about Congress presenting the budget, NAFTA issues allowed discussion of the history of regulating trade and environmental issues stemming from the notion that Mexico would want to lower clean air standards in order to lure work from the United States. For me, a 15 year-old kid, learning about all this meant getting a true sense of the value of the Cabinet too. Learning the how, why, and who of Cabinet Secretary nominations was fascinating, and it was the kind of applied education that made getting out to vote four years later something about which I passionately cared.

By comparison, my heart aches for the Civics/American Government teachers who have to walk into their classes and spend an hour deflecting comments about why a candidate thought it was appropriate to insinuate the moderator was on her menstrual cycle, instead of debating the idea of socialized health care in a democratic nation. What chance do they have making sure these future voters are informed voters if they can’t even get them to care about the act of voting?

There’s actually a trend over the past two Presidential election years where the percentage of 18-year-olds not voting in their first election cycle has grown from 1% to 5%. The tail off of 18-year-olds not voting for the first time in 2012 and 2014’s mid-terms reached 15%. Could apathetic 18-year olds push the percentage of first-time voters not voting in Presidential election years from 1, to 5, to a whopping 10% of their population choosing “None of the Above” in 2016? That’s entirely possible.

Unfortunately, it appears that this Presidential election cycle’s candidates aren’t doing anything of consequence to reach out to this growing population of disinterested yet soon-to-be franchised voters.

As a frame of reference, in 1992, 46% of voters aged 18-24 voted for Bill Clinton (21% voted for Ross Perot). As a 14-year old, I remember Clinton as being sharp on the issues, but it was his aforementioned appearances on both MTV and the Arsenio Hall show that made him seem infinitely cooler (and likely thus, more presidential) to me than say, George Bush. Ross Perot was intriguing because he seemed to have a handle on the issues, but in my eyes there was no comparison to Clinton, who directly marketed himself to those in my age range.

Which candidate is doing that in 2015?

In addressing the concerns of 65+ year old white protestants instead of 18-year olds, how many precocious 14-year old African-American boys in tortoise shell-framed glasses are Donald Trump and other candidates leaving behind? Yes, Florida senator and presidential nominee Marco Rubio can filibuster using Jay Z and Wiz Khalifa quotes while a member of Congress, but considering Jay already texts with President Obama, Rubio certainly looks like he’s jacking a bit of Obama’s swag and riding the coattails of Presidential cool.

This lack of engagement isn’t just bad for would-be teen voters either, it’s also terrible for the politicians who are leaving very important votes on the table.

The 10% of 18-year olds potentially not voting in 2016 could make a huge difference in who wins the election. Votes by voters ages 18-24 in the 2012 Presidential election counted for 8.5% of the nearly 133 million votes cast. That’s 11.3 million votes. When you consider that Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012 by a margin of about 5 million votes, the percentage of 18-24 year olds who may not vote in 2016 who are actually 18-year olds foregoing voting in their first election could easily be the tossed away swing votes that sway the election next November.

The idea that you never get a second chance to make a first impression is entirely true. When I was 15, because of an election cycle where issues mattered as much as the personalities did, I discovered a love of politics and grew to appreciate how the American electoral system works. If I were 14 in 2016, would I love American politics enough to vote? Possibly.

Would I grow to love discussing the worst of pig-headed sexism more than going to the voting booth?

It’s possible I’d love it more than actually voting.