March 29 2016 05:54 PM

A few reasons why millennials aren’t looking at local elections

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Supporters (including Tad Tobar, foreground) wait for Bernie Sanders at the San Diego Convention Center.
Photos by Torrey Bailey

    Twenty-two-year-old Kai Pedersen, a lifelong San Diegan and the newest club president of Point Loma Nazarene University College Democrats, doesn't know which city council district he lives in. Can he give a thoroughly executed explanation of his "Bernie Sanders Wildcard" theory? Yes. Can he spit data about millennial voter turnout nationwide? You bet. But, when it comes to knowing who's competing for his mayoral vote—nada.

    Asking millennials about "the election" unleashes either a full-fledged verbal assault on Donald "Small Hands" Trump or a fist pump with a side of "Berning up" puns. But, when interrupting them and clarifying that the question refers to the local primaries, mostly silence ensues.

    One glance at the line wrapped around the convention center last week shows there is no shortage in millennial attention toward the grandstand. Even San Diego State University senior Miguel Locsin, 22, who shows pointed disinterest in the presidential horse race, still knows the skeletal facts because of the candidates' nearly Internet-breaking presence. While presidential elections are bursting millennial eardrums, local primaries are barely just politely tapping them on the shoulder.

    "I literally hear nothing ever about what's going on locally," Locsin said. "I don't read the newspaper, and that shit doesn't show up on Yahoo. So, how am I supposed to know about it?"

    Sorry, San Diego political beat writers.

    Millennials' low interest in local politics can be chalked up to a few things, and media coverage is a recurring response, even across generational lines.

    "There is simply less old-fashion professional journalistic media out there to cover a much bigger city, a much bigger government, much bigger happenings," said Carl Luna, political science professor at both the University of San Diego and San Diego Mesa College. "So the focus tends to be on the ratings war, on the eye visits to the page, the clicks on the website and the attention that can get the biggest bang for the buck."

    On a given day, local broadcast stations list the latest GOP debates among their top stories, while a headline on a county supervisor re-election falls several scrolls farther down the page. Political news sections are often fully dedicated to the presidential drama. So, are millennials placing the blame accurately? Local CBS San Diego news producer Louis Weiner admitted the coverage of local versus national politics is heavily skewed, but doesn't let millennials off the hook so easily.

    "They're not watching a lot of local television news, but they get most of their news from social media like Snapchat or Twitter or Facebook, and they're not seeing those local topics," Weiner said. "But if they watch enough local news, they're going to get that information. To say that it's not there is unfair."

    He said that until about a month before the election, the station will continue to cover local news, which may include events where the mayor and council members are involved, but not the races themselves.

    Generation Y eyes are on social media, much more so than television, but most potential candidates don't necessarily go there. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has just shy of 1,100 followers on Instagram. Comparatively, his 11,230-plus likes on Facebook sounds like a hefty load, yet the city over which he governs has more than 1.3 million people living in it. Meanwhile, Anthony Bernal, who's running for city council in District 3, has his team spending two to three hours per day shaping a social media presence but is still struggling to break through to the mainstream feed of San Diego youngsters.

    By skimming over the gusto of social media, an entire generation of potential electoral support faces neglect. However, even when millennials use these various platforms to get involved, there is dismissal of such a non-traditional take on political engagement.

    "Instead of writing a letter to a representative, they will see a video on YouTube and forward that to a friend," PLNU's Pedersen said. "A lot of people don't think of that as being politically engaged, but it is. You're furthering the national discussion, even in a way that's small, it's a way that's pushing it forward."

    According to a study by Pew Research Center, 44 percent of millennials use social media to promote political material. But SDSU's Locsin disagrees on its efficacy.

    "Someone can justify clicking the 'like' button as showing their view on it, but to them that's taking the action," Locsin said. "That's their action of making a difference, but what they don't realize is that that does absolutely nothing."

    Whether or not "likes" are sufficient in the national race, the lack of local content circulating the Internet blocks that discussion from taking place in the San Diego setting—even though millennials admit to knowing these decisions will affect their everyday lives, including their standard of living, their neighborhood, their home and their job more than their presidential pick.

    Even with this in mind, Mesa College student Tad Tobar, who anxiously awaited the arrival of Bernie Sanders Tuesday night, said he leaves locals to the last minute.

    "Before I vote, I read about every candidate, but I sit down for 30 minutes and just read through really quick and get an overview of what they say because a lot of the focus is on the national," Tobar said.

    And so the vicious cycle continues.

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