Most of them are not old enough to vote, but don’t underestimate how involved high school students are in this presidential campaign.
They’re not fooled by the tidal wave of partisan messages they see on TV, the internet and social media.
And they don’t like any of the candidates very much.
Last week, a group of civics and Advanced Placement government students at Metropolitan Business Academy got together to talk about the election and the campaigns’ effect on them. The Register also talked to several other area high school students.
Though none of the academy students are old enough to vote Nov. 8, they don’t lack for opinions on the candidates.
"(Donald) Trump lacks self-control, (Hillary) Clinton is very dishonest, Gary Johnson is uninformed and I feel Jill Stein is too liberal for me even though I’m pretty liberal,” summed up Matthew Bruno, a junior from New Haven who attends the magnet high school on Water Street, referring to the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green party presidential candidates.
This is a generation for which internet comments and Facebook “likes” are as influential — maybe even more so — than New York Times stories or TV news.
"I feel like this election in particular is very different from past elections and I think social media plays a big role in that,” said Billy Oliver, a senior from New Haven. “Social media and technology as a whole influences elections more than others in the past. I think it can be both a good and bad thing. … A lot of people can go on rants on social media over ‘facts’ that aren’t true.”
These are students who are bombarded with campaign talk on Facebook and Instagram. They’ve watched the debates. But they’ve cut through the clutter and know the issues. And they are not impressed.
“It definitely influences me in the fact that I’m on social media a lot,” said Henry Seyue, a junior from New Haven.
The messages cut both ways and, Seyue said, “We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” although “Clinton is the lesser of two evils.” He pointed out that the minor-party candidates get almost no coverage from traditional news sources.
Tia Stevens, a junior from New Haven, said of Clinton and Trump, “Everybody feels like they’re unfit candidates and I definitely agree.” She said Trump “clearly does not care” about people like her. And she said of Clinton, “When she gets into office we’re not going to get any benefit from what she’s saying. I feel like it’s all lies.”
“Younger voters are kind of new to this and this is a (lousy) election for new voters,” said Caitlin Willis, a senior from New Haven.
Latrese Martin, a Hamden junior, can’t see herself supporting Trump. “Being African-American, it seems like he’s putting white people on a pedestal and us lower,” she said. On the other hand, “Hillary I truly don’t care for.”
Neither candidate is coming across as authentic, Martin said. “Just watching Trump … he says what he wants when he wants. But I feel like Hillary has a mask to take off.” Martin does give Clinton some benefit of the doubt. “She’s dishonest but I feel like there’s two sides to her a little bit,” she said.
Bruno gave the Republican nominee some credit, saying, “At least with Trump you kind of know what you’re getting,” while Clinton comes across as “scripted.” But he prefers the candidate who lost the Democratic nomination to Clinton. “In all fairness to Bernie Sanders, he’s the most consistent,” Bruno said.
“We also have to look at how corrupt they are,” said Jonah Galan, a junior from Hamden. “Their kids went to each other’s weddings; they’re best friends.”
For many students, the candidates’ public personas are important but not the most critical factor. “For me personally, I don’t see morality, the character traits of the candidates, as important as their competency,” said Melody DeBlasio, a sophomore from Seymour. She sees big gaps in Trump’s ability to reduce the budget deficit and fulfill his promises to build up the military, cut taxes and bar immigrants from Mexico and Syria.
“You want to include border security, but you have no plan to address rising Medicare and Medicaid costs,” she said of Trump. While “they both have horrible characters,” she said, she prefers Clinton for her experience.
Wayde Whichard, a junior from North Haven, also came down on the side of experience, comparing “a person who has known no government experience and someone who’s been secretary of state.”
“Both candidates are unfit for the presidency, but Trump is a businessman and he should stick to business,” Willis said. “Donald Trump has no knowledge on foreign affairs. He says we’re going to defeat ISIS but he has no plan at all.”
One issue all in the group agreed on was that race relations are not being adequately addressed by Trump or Clinton. “Black Lives Matter should be put in the spotlight because it’s happening now,” Willis said.
Seyue said if Clinton “focused on minority voters … she could see herself up by a landslide.” Other than a speech to the NAACP, “she hasn’t outreached to that community,” said Bruno.
As for Trump, students said they were insulted that he talks to African Americans as if they are all poor and live in the inner city. They pointed out that a black family lives in the White House. “His speeches are so prejudiced that even when he compliments, it’s prejudiced,” said Whichard. “He always generalizes everything.”
“We’re so separated by race … I feel like to get it diverse you have to speak on things like Black Lives Matter,” Martin said. “His words are strong and they’re hurtful and they’re ignorant. We need to be together.”
“He’s really just outright demeaning,” DeBlasio said. “All he’s left with really are all these white male voters.”
But Clinton’s sincerity is doubtful, several students said. “Are you connecting to be true to everyone?” asked Martin. “I feel like you have to have a true connection.”
COUNTERING THE FEAR
While high school students can discern the meaning behind the candidates’ words, that may not be so easy for younger children.
Kimberly Jewers-Dailley, director of the New Haven Trauma Coalition at the Clifford Beers Clinic, said a school principal recently told her about young children who said, “‘I’m afraid Trump is going to take my family away.’
“I’m assuming this is not the only school it’s happening in at all,” she said.
“I just think the climate of fear is just intense,” especially for recent immigrants, Jewers-Dailley said. “People don’t know what (Trump is) going to come up with next. He’s very erratic. It’s very frightening.”
Steven Marans is director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at the Yale Child Study Center. He said, “This is really an opportunity to really find out what is on our kids’ minds. It’s also an opportunity for parents to convey what their values are and what the values are in our country.
“The way we behave toward one another is often the more powerful means of conveying our values to our children.
“The significant reaction to the many comments that have been discriminatory and offensive offer a chance to bring the reality of discrimination into the light of day,” Marans said.
Another concern of the high scool students was the vitriol of both candidates’ supporters. “We as a society don’t always respect opposing opinion … and I feel like people who support Trump have the right to support him,” as do Clinton’s supporters,” said Bruno. “People tend to demonize opposing viewpoints. If somebody comes out as a Trump supporter, somebody’s going to say you’re a racist even though it’s not true.”
At West Haven High School, senior Sai Maurice has felt personally what Bruno referred to. A Trump supporter, he said, “I basically have been vilified by a lot of people for my stances on the issues.” Maurice has an Instagram page called ”The Skilled Conservative” and said his backing Trump is based “mostly (on) his views on foreign policy regarding strengthening our border and vetting immigration.”
Maurice said his parents are concerned for him but said, “When we depress ourselves or silence ourselves out of fear of retaliation then we definitely let the enemies of free speech win.”
Alexander Southworth, a West Haven High senior, said, “I don’t really like either candidate and this campaign worries me. … To me there’s a growing trend of opposites, to extremism. There’s a lack of moderates.” While Trump is “obviously very extreme in his views,” Southworth questions Clinton’s “moral character … and her laxness when it comes to things involving the government, like her emails.”
Mekhi Geter, a West Haven High junior, is a Clinton supporter. Trump’s “ideas and views on education would take away money from schools. I think Hillary will really help children,” he said. Geter said that while he does not support Trump, “he does make a lot of valid points,” for example, opposing strict gun control.
Another Westie senior, Rose Silver, said, “This is a particularly interesting campaign cycle … It has more of an emotional tie to people who are voting,” with people wary of both candidates for different reasons.
“There’s more of a polarization between Democrats and Republicans now. … It’s scary to identify with a party that’s in the minority.” While she supports Clinton, Silver said, “I’m still researching it. A lot of what I see on the news is people lying about each candidate.”
Coral Ortiz, a senior at James Hillhouse High School, is a student member of the New Haven Board of Education and the state Board of Education. She said she sees Trump’s rhetoric as a threat to minorities.
"I think everybody is always talking about the elections," Ortiz said. “The population of my school is predominantly minorities, and when one candidate is targeting minority groups, it’s scary.”
She said there is “tension” in her Advanced Placement government class. "There’s a lot of talk about our country and if we are actually progressive and what this means going forward,” she said.
Spencer Mariotti, a senior at Branford High School is 18 and so was able to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and will “gladly check the box” next to Clinton’s name on Nov. 8.
He said he thinks “the state of the discourse certainly couldn’t be worse,” and he blames that mostly on Trump, although, he said, “Most young people aren’t totally enthralled with the idea of exalting either one of the candidates to the level of president.”
He said he feels what is “most threatening to the basics of American liberal democracy is the idea that the results of the election will without doubt be illegitimate unless my candidate wins.”
He said Trump is preparing his supporters to doubt the outcome if he loses, which “has affected me viscerally on a pretty basic level.
“I do feel anxious and more so than just disgusted at the rhetoric. ... It frightens me that there would be one man so close to power who would ... prime his supporters for violence.”