Young Voters Sound Off in Silicon Valley

(Photo: Stephen Pottage)

Participants in the focus group were vocal about their support for education. (Photo: Stephen Pottage)

With the national conventions behind them now, Republicans and Democrats say they’re all fired up and ready to go — sprinting toward the November election.

Four years ago Barack Obama marched into the White House beside an army of young volunteers. How are voters under 30 feeling about politics now?

As President Obama was giving his acceptance speech Thursday night, a group of younger citizens in Silicon Valley discussed their feelings about the election. Those focus groups are part of KQED’s campaign season series “What’s Government For?” — a joint project with the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“But just about everybody wanted government to do more to improve schools and to make college more affordable.”

While the PPIC does public opinion polling, they also are conducting these smaller conversations to take the pulse of Californians this election year. KQED has already participated in Contra Costa, Fresno and Los Angeles. On Thursday night, 20 young adults — ages 18 to 29 — gathered to talk about their views on government and politics. The group was a mix of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and people who aren’t sure what their political beliefs are or even whether they will vote. KQED’s Political Editor Tyche Hendricks was there for the evening, watching through the two-way mirror. Participants were told only their first names would be used, to ensure candor.

Hendricks said there was a common thread, linking the group. While the 20 people spanned the socio-economic spectrum in terms of jobs and their backgrounds, all of them expressed worry about the state of the country and the economy. “Some blame President Obama, and others just say he was dealt a tough hand and he needs more time to get things right,” Hendricks said.

Some were students, some are working, others are looking for work. Some of them have children of their own. “But just about everybody wanted government to do more to improve schools and to make college more affordable,” Hendricks said, adding a specific point from a focus group participant named Ryan, who said he was the first in his family to go to college and that he’s already spent five years at San Jose State University, just trying to get the courses he needs to graduate. Ryan told the group that tuition has doubled since he’s been there and there are significantly fewer classes.

Proposition 30 on the ballot in November would raise taxes to avoid further cuts in classes and tuition hikes. The focus group was overwhelmingly in favor of Prop. 30 and Prop. 38, which would also raise taxes for education, Hendricks reported.

“Some people said they didn’t favor raising taxes in general,” Hendricks said, “but schools and colleges need the help. A young woman named Divia, who is an immigrant from India, (has) her Masters Degree, and she’s working in the field of food technology. She described herself as politically neutral, but she’s worried about finding a good school for her young daughter. And she thinks that quality education shouldn’t just depend on living in a fancy zip code. In the focus group, Divia said that education ‘should be accessible and available for everyone. … They should not have a choice that only it I have money then I can get an education.'”

This attention to education mirrors what President Obama discussed in his acceptance speech Thursday night. Still, Hendricks says this young group was markedly less excited about President Obama than young people were four years ago.

“Even the Democrats in the group didn’t seem very excited about the election,” Hendricks said. “They were willing to give Obama another chance, but there was a sense of unease that I heard from many of them, and a sense of disconnection from the political process. (One) young woman — a recent college graduate who’s now paying to put her sister through college — said she felt government leaders were ‘cut off’ from the people they represent. She said ‘government, I don’t trust you, but I need you. So, I hope you’re doing good for me.'”

The campaigns have about seven weeks to build trust with voters.


Listen to Scott Shafer’s interview with KQED Political Editor Tyche Hendricks

More stories from the Public Policy Institute of California focus groups:

From Silicon Valley: Eroding Trust in Government Among Young Voters

From the Central Valley: Central Valley Voters Speak Their Minds at Focus Groups