Young voters are pulling Orange County to the left

Bailey Grebbin recalls nasty notes being left on her mother’s car at their Dana Point home – notes commenting on the Barack Obama bumper sticker.

“‘How’s that hope and change working for you?’ things like that,” recalled the 19-year-old environmental studies major while walking the family dog, an Independence Day adoptee named Yankee. Her mom eventually removed the sticker because of the notes and fear the car might be keyed, Grebbin said.

The incident is not entirely surprising, given Orange County’s reputation as a Republican stronghold – a reputation built on the days when the GOP’s advantage over Democrats in voter registration soared as high as 22 percentage points.

But the final tally for Tuesday’s primary shows that lead is now less than 7 percentage points. The shift is being driven in large measure by Grebbin and her fellow millennials – those 18 to 34 years old – who favor the Democratic Party over the GOP, 36 percent to 26 percent, according to Political Data Inc.

As recently as 2002, that age group favored the GOP in Orange County, 42 percent to 29 percent. Young people’s share of unaffiliated voters increased from 22 percent to 32 percent over that period.

“We saw our families and friends go through a lot of difficulties during the Great Recession, and it came from (George W.) Bush policies,” said Grebbin, back in town after her sophomore year of college.

Additionally, young voters are more likely to support gay marriage, immigration reform and legalized marijuana – positions more aligned with the Democratic Party – according to Fullerton College political scientist Jodi Balma.

Yet Grebbin finds herself in the minority within her own age group.

Sure, she’s a Democrat. But she supports former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Among millennials, Sen. Bernie Sanders is the heavy favorite, according to polls. The two sides’ disdain for each other can get emotionally charged, although Grebbin expressed a philosophical attitude.

“It can be a little awkward because a lot of my friends support Bernie,” said Grebbin, who’s especially aware of the difference at her school – Green Mountain College in Sanders’ home state of Vermont. “But it’s good to have different views. It brings more to the conversation.”


Not all millennials are steering clear of the GOP. But even those who embrace the Republican Party often have views that diverge from their parents’ generation of Republicans.

While Anaheim’s Ethan Morse opposes abortion rights and legalizing marijuana, he doesn’t object to current laws regarding gay marriage, thinks transgender people should be able to use the bathrooms appropriate to their appearance and supports legalizing those in the country illegally, as long as those who’ve committed crimes are deported.

He said most friends his age are Democrats and those who are Republicans tend to be on the side of legal pot, gay marriage and other social issues typically championed by Democrats.

But there are more important issues spurring his ardent support of the GOP.

“I believe the Republican Party has a better understanding of small business, the American dream and our responsibility as the world’s greatest superpower,” said Morse, a 34-year-old film producer.

In many ways, Morse is classic Republican. His parents, both Republicans, were dairy farmers in northern New York state, which he credits for his work ethic.

He’s an evangelical Christian who served three years in the Army. That included 18 months as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, which informed his just-released Kickstarter-funded documentary, “The Unknowns.”

Morse has favored Donald Trump from the start, applauding the billionaire’s non-establishment credentials, his financial independence and his willingness to say whatever he feels. He’s willing to overlook some of Trump’s more controversial and impractical proposals.

“Donald Trump is a charismatic leader who obviously likes to hear his own voice,” Morse said, adding he thinks the presumptive Republican nominee will present more measured positions as his research and understanding of issues increases. “You should be able to change your views and make more informed opinions.”

Morse is adamant he would never vote for a Democrat, complaining that the party backs abortion rights, big government and a “hand-tied military.”

Does that cause friction with his Democratic friends?

“We seldom talk about politics because we each think the other is crazy.”


While young voters are giving Orange County Democrats a boost, perhaps more significant is the growth of young voters who want nothing to do with either party.

“I decided the best way to voice my distrust in and disdain for the current political climate was to become unaffiliated,” said Brea’s Beverly Falco, 25.

Falco originally registered as a Republican, which she attributes to the influence of her Republican mother. She soon became disillusioned with the GOP over issues of abortion rights and gay marriage, but saw the Democratic Party as an inadequate alternative. She re-registered with no party preference and supports Sanders.

“Both Clinton and Trump are incredibly wealthy and don’t necessarily connect or understand problems facing the lower or disappearing middle class,” said Falco, who works for a nonprofit giving presentations at local high schools on sexual consent and sexual assault. “I appreciate Sanders calling out big businesses and I think their influence is much deeper than we’ve been led to believe.”

Statewide, independent voters such as Falco are the biggest slice of millennials, at 41 percent. Democrats are 39 percent and Republicans are 20 percent of California’s millennial voters, according to the Pew Reserach Center.

And while Democratic millennials outnumber both Republican and unaffiliated millennials in Orange County, independents are on a trajectory to overtake Democrats here in the next few years. They already outnumber county Republicans.

“It seems as if the dynamics of Orange County and the country are changing, but our political parties do not seem to be changing with us,” Falco said. “Many people my age feel alienated from the process and from the major political parties.”


Sanders is a phenomenon among millennials, who have helped pull him to victory in the 20 states he’s won so far and who’ve also favored him in most states he’s lost. Nationwide, 55 percent of young voters have a favorable view of him, 38 percent have a favorable view of Clinton and 22 percent have a favorable view of Trump, according to a Gallup poll of 20- to 36-year-olds in April.

In Orange County, half of all new registrations since the beginning of the year have been millennials and Sanders is the main reason, according to political scientist Balma.

“They’ve grown up with documentaries and media that have exposed them to issues the government either refuses to deal with – a broken immigration system, climate change – or seems bought and paid for – Wall Street, income inequity,” Balma said.

“Now there’s a candidate who is discussing these issues. They like his message and they like him.”

Kevin Christensen, a senator in the Fullerton College student body government, has been casting about for such a candidate for a few years. The offspring of Republicans and a veteran who served in Afghanistan, Christensen had been a Libertarian and voted for Ron Paul in the past two presidential primaries.

Now, he shares the same Democratic Party affiliation as Grebbin – but is on the other side of the Clinton-Sanders divide.

Grebbin says she likes what Sanders stands for, but complains about the lack of details. She thinks an insider like Clinton is needed to change the system.

Christensen counters that Sanders has detailed plans and that whoever is president will face the obstacle of an often- recalcitrant Congress. He says that Sanders was first with the right position on key issues, including support for gay marriage and opposition to the Iraq war. And he’s wary of some of Clinton’s position changes.

“It makes me wonder whether her true ideological alignments fall left of center or right of center,” said the 27-year-old, who’ll be studying playwriting at Columbia University in the fall. “I don’t just take a candidate’s word that they have had a change of heart.”

For many Democratic leaders, including Orange County party chairman Henry Vandermeir, a big question is whether the millennials drawn to Sanders will turn out in November to vote for Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee.

Falco said it was was “likely” she would. Christensen sounded less certain – and pointed out that because California is overwhelmingly Democratic, a vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein wouldn’t hurt Clinton.

“If we lived in a swing state, I would have to really address where my convictions lie and put even more thought into the election,” he said. “Because a Trump presidency is a frightening one.”

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