LEWISTON — For Molly Ryan, president of the Bates Republicans, these are difficult days.

With Donald Trump leading the GOP ticket in the Nov. 8 election, she said, many young people on her side of the political divide can’t stomach the party’s presidential nominee.

“It’s depressing,” Ryan said. “It’s negative.” 

Young Democrats, on the other hand, are feeling elated.

“There are a lot of reasons to be excited” about the party’s prospects, said Ali Rabideau, co-president of the Bates Democrats. She said she’s seeing a surge of support for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Elise Emil, vice president of the Bates Democrats, said she’s been surprised at how swiftly a campus that so strongly backed Clinton rival Bernie Sanders last year has come to embrace the woman who beat him in the primaries.

“I’ve seen a really dramatic shift,” Emil said.

While the presidential race is getting a lot of attention, young political leaders said their contemporaries are also quite interested in the tight 2nd District congressional race and Maine’s five ballot questions.

“I see a lot of involvement,” said Abby Bennett, a University of Maine student in Orono who heads the Maine Federation of College Republicans. She said many GOP students “are participating, mostly for local elections.”

There are so many students in the 2nd District that The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University said young people here may hold the key on Election Day.

“Maine’s a very small place, so Bates students can make a big difference,” Ryan said.

The civic engagement center’s Youth Electoral Significance Index cites the district as the third most likely one in the country for young people “to play a critical role in shaping the presidential race, as well as House and Senate races, this November.”

Both Democratic and Republican student leaders said they see some potential for young voters to swing the election between U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Emily Cain, which is rated a toss-up by Cook’s Report.

“I think we have a much stronger volunteer base on the Poliquin side,” Bennett said.

Rabideau said, though, that Democrats at Bates “are very excited about Emily Cain” and working to help her win.

Despite the civic engagement center’s statements, the numbers indicate young people aren’t likely to make too much difference at the polls.

Based on the most recent census figures for the district, fewer than 10 percent of potential voters are younger than 25 years old — and many of them aren’t registered to vote. It is also one of the nation’s oldest districts, with an average age of 44.6.

On the largely liberal Bates campus, Ryan said, most students tend to be Democrats and most also vote absentee in their hometowns rather than in Lewiston. As a result, she said, GOP students at Bates don’t usually get too involved in local races.

She said, though, that they are doing what they can to discuss the questions that Maine voters face because they aren’t as inherently partisan. She said student Republicans are interested in laying out the issues at stake so that voters understand why the outcome matters to Mainers.

Question 1, which could legalize marijuana, is especially interesting to students because it’s an issue many young people “have fought for” and care about, Ryan said.

Rabideau said students are also amped up about a measure that would hike the minimum wage in Maine.

Still, it’s the presidential election “that seems to be the driving force” in capturing students’ attention, Emil said.

That’s what makes it so tough for Republicans, Ryan said, since there is “very, very little support” for Trump on campus. She said he’s had a “really negative” impact on Poliquin’s race and the image of the GOP generally.

“We’re lying low,” Ryan said, and waiting for the election to be over. “We don’t want people to think we’re the party of Trump,” she added.

The one consolation, Ryan said, is that the Republican Party is so shattered that it “has nowhere to go but up” as it moves on from a brutal race.

Both Bennett and Ryan see a better future ahead for the party. Ryan said that as more young people move up into GOP leadership roles, its positions will change to reflect more diverse views.

Rabideau said Democrats also feel brighter days coming. Emil said the Democrats, if they can keep up their enthusiasm, have a good shot at reclaiming the U.S. Senate along with the White House.

She said students have grown “progressively more excited” this year as they’ve come to know more about Clinton and the issues at stake.

“We are building a community of people who are willing to engage,” Rabideau said.


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