In red California, Democrats struggle to win young voters amid a ‘sea of gray hairs’

The younger-generation vote has proved elusive for Democrats in conservative parts of California.
(Illustration by Ryan Johnson / For The Times)
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There wasn’t a lot of youth to be found at an event called “Turning Out the Youth Vote” this month at Sierra College. Senior citizens outnumbered students 3 to 1.

One gray-haired woman said she had tried, and failed, to post something about the event on, “believe it or not, Instagram.” The decidedly blue-leaning room roared with annoyance when Dallas Thrift, a pro-Trump 18-year-old in a Space Force hat, yelled, “How many illegal immigrants do you think voted in the last election?”

The big draw was the free Subway sandwiches, which the vaunted youths raided before ducking out. In the hallway, several young women stopped a 19-year-old art student clutching a cold cut.

“Where’d you get that sandwich?!” one asked.

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“Oh, there’s a youth voter thing going on in there,” he said.

They kept walking.

Welcome to young voter outreach in conservative Placer County.

In the weeks leading up to what could be California’s most important primary election in decades, volunteers with Democratic groups here have been lingering around events like this, hoping to beat the odds and woo desperately needed young voters in a place that has voted for a GOP presidential candidate in every election since 1980.

“We can turn this county blue if we focus on young people,” said Rosemary Dukelow, voter outreach coordinator for the Placer County Democratic Party. The party “basically ignored them over the years. If you look at our Democratic clubs, it’s a sea of gray hairs.”

Rosemary Dukelow is the voter outreach coordinator for the Placer County Democratic Party.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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Even in America’s largest liberal bastion, swaths of California exist as political petri dishes for the kind of suburban and rural places in battleground states where Democrats need to squeeze out as many votes, including young ones, as they can. A land of transplants from everywhere in the U.S., California has no shortage of places that could be surrogates for parts of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states that could help decide who wins the White House.

And if you can’t energize enough young people here, you’ll probably struggle to do it elsewhere.

“Everyone thinks of California as a blue state. We’re not a blue state. What California is is shades of blue and many communities of red,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at USC. “A candidate that can appeal to young people sincerely and effectively has the potential to really increase their numbers or bring young people into the electorate and reset the vote a little bit.”

Millennials and the younger Generation Z overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump. They also are more racially and ethnically diverse and more liberal than previous generations, according to the Pew Research Center.

But they are more unlikely to vote than any other age group. People ages 18 to 24 consistently vote at a rate 15 to 25 percentage points lower than the overall population, according to a Times analysis of census data.

Placer County, which stretches from the northeastern suburbs of Sacramento to the Nevada border at Lake Tahoe, increasingly is an outlier in diverse, blue California. It is represented in the California Legislature by five Republicans and in the U.S. House by Republicans Doug LaMalfa of Richvale and Tom McClintock of Elk Grove.

Some 41% of the county’s registered voters are Republicans; in California, 24% are. The county also is 72% white, compared with 37% for the state. Its median age of 42 is about five years older than the state median.

Voter registration in Auburn, Calif.
Gail Bartlow, left, of Applegate, Calif., helps McKenna Shepherd, 16, pre-register to vote during the Be the Change talent show in Auburn.
(Randy Pench / For The Times)

For the last 25 years, county election officials have aggressively tried to register young people by running a high school outreach program in which speakers from every qualified political party are invited to speak to students, who then are given voter registration cards. More than 50,000 students have registered, said Ryan Ronco, the Placer County clerk, recorder and registrar of voters.

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“It’s easier for them to identify with someone five years older than them than someone 35 years older than them,” said Landon Wolf, the 29-year-old chairman of the Placer County Young Republicans. “We make it a priority to have younger people in those rooms.”

Often, at the end of presentations, more students have registered as new Republicans than Democrats, he said.

Over breakfast at the railroad-themed Pacific Street Cafe in Roseville, Dukelow said with a sigh that “the Republicans do a great job” in the high schools.

Rosemary Dukelow speaks with Democratic volunteers
Rosemary Dukelow, center, speaks with husband-and-wife volunteers Chuck and Audrey Ehrlich, who came by to pick up lawn signs for Democratic candidates.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“We really need to up our game,” said Dukelow, a retired librarian. “They have young presenters. You can tell they’re professional communicators. We’ve got older ladies like me.”

Although young people nationwide are more liberal, there are more 18- to 24-year-old Republicans than Democrats in Placer County, according to county data. Independents outnumber both.

Membership in the Democratic Party in Placer County has surged by 29% since 2014. But reaching young voters, Dukelow said, continues to vex.

“They age out,” she said. “They’re going to get a job or go away to school, and then we have to recruit a whole bunch of new young Democrats.”

Back at Sierra College, Thrift said he registered with the ultraconservative American Independent Party on campus, at a table run by Democratic volunteers. He quietly acknowledged that “they actually do a lot.”

Thrift, from Granite Bay, will cast his first ballot this year, for Trump. He said that while he feels lucky to live in a red county, his voice is drowned out in California.

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“Right now, if you’re a white, straight male, you’re pretty much the most persecuted person right now,” Thrift said. “I’m going to do everything I can to push for the 2nd Amendment and 1st Amendment, and stop illegal immigration and build the wall.”

Sierra Noelle performs at Be the Change talent show in Auburn, Calif.
Sierra Noelle of Placer County performs at the Be the Change talent show in Auburn, Calif., where Democratic volunteers were on hand to register voters.
(Randy Pench / For The Times)

Young Democrats tried in recent years to start clubs in Placer and neighboring El Dorado County, but “they flopped,” said Daniel Stephenson, executive vice chair of the El Dorado County Democratic Party’s Central Committee.

In 2017, Stephenson, 31, co-founded the Sierra Foothills Young Democrats, whose membership stretches across mountainous Placer, Amador and El Dorado counties. It is a “a continual struggle” to keep it going, with members sometimes driving more than two hours to meet, the Diamond Springs resident said. Lately, they mostly do conference calls.

Stephenson got involved with the party as a college student, volunteering with the Obama campaign. He said he quickly became a go-to person for everything youth-related.

Stephenson, who is Asian American, said he often is surrounded by “a bunch of old white people.”

Sierra Foothills Young Democrats
Daniel Stephenson, right, who co-founded the Sierra Foothills Young Democrats, meets with volunteers in Cameron Park before heading out to canvass neighborhoods.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

He now volunteers for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and would be happy with a Bernie Sanders nomination, too. He believes liberal Democrats are more likely than moderates to solve the student loan crisis.

Older Democrats here, he said, criticize him as too progressive and divisive when he tells them some candidates are better than others. He has tried to warn them that “our generation doesn’t care about party; they’re not necessarily ‘blue no matter who.’”

He said he has also sparred with the California Young Democrats, the official young-voter arm of the state party. He feels like they ignore his region because “we are a flyover district.”

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“It’s this repeating cycle where you have to create your own activists, your own volunteers; you have to get your own money,” Stephenson said. “They set the bar, and we get a metaphorical pat on the head.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, left, talks with voters after speaking to a tea tarty group in Rocklin, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Josh Lewis, 19, from the minuscule Amador County town of Pine Grove, co-founded the group with Stephenson. Now studying political science at UC Berkeley, he was a liberal teen in a high school where his classmates spoke out about the 2nd Amendment and wore red Make America Great Again hats.

“Growing up, I used to say I was from ‘Calabama,’” said Lewis, who was elected last year as a Democratic Party delegate for the 5th State Assembly District, which includes Amador, Placer, El Dorado and other rural counties.

“Something we hear a lot from Democratic leaders in rural areas is that there’s a massive push to get youth involved,” Lewis said. “But I’m disappointed by the party’s support for people who don’t represent youth interests.”

Lewis, who plans to vote for Sanders in the March 3 primary, said that young people want bold plans for debt-free education and affordable healthcare but that “the party establishment in rural areas is a little hesitant to push for these ideas.”

“The hill I will die on is we don’t win seats in these rural areas that have been occupied by Republicans by being moderate,” he said.

In Loomis, a town of 6,800 people straddling Interstate 80, a group of young activists at Del Oro High School said climate change is a higher priority than party politics.

Members of an environmental club at Del Oro High School in Loomis, Calif.
Kevin Malaekeh, Jack Galloway and Jake McCullough started an environmental club at Del Oro High School and say climate change is more important than party politics.
(Hailey Branson-Potts / Los Angeles Times)

Sitting in the lush courtyard of the High-Hand Nursery, Kevin Malaekeh, 17; Jack Galloway, 16; and Jake McCullough, 17, said they formed an environmental club after the deadly 2018 Camp fire. Smoke from the blaze in Paradise, 86 miles north, blotted out the sun in Loomis. Football practices were canceled. Students stayed indoors.

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“Even though we have more conservatives here, with the climate crisis we can all work together because we can all see the effects,” Galloway said. “We’re all affected by the droughts; we’re all affected by the fires.”

They are working with the Loomis Town Council on a citywide food scraps collection program, and they installed water faucet aerators at their school to lower water usage. (The only pushback, they said, was from a school employee who said students would use the aerators “to make bongs.”)

They are frustrated that climate change has become a partisan issue.

“Personally, I don’t necessarily look at which party a candidate is from; I check to see who is the most environmentally conscious,” said McCullough, who will turn 18 just in time to vote in the general election. Right now, he likes Pete Buttigieg.

On a chilly Saturday night this month, dozens gathered in downtown Auburn for a youth talent show called Be the Change. It was put on by members of the Auburn Hip Hop Congress — a group of artists, emcees and DJs who work with young people — along with the Auburn Area Democratic Club and liberal group Indivisible Auburn.

Emma-Lee Rose, 17, performs at the Be the Change talent show
Emma-Lee Rose, 17, of Placer County plays her guitar and sings during the Be the Change talent show in Auburn. She pre-registered to vote that night, marking no party preference.
(Randy Pench / For The Times)

Democrats ran a voter registration table in the back of the room. Nearby, people promoted the Green New Deal.

Onstage, a shy 14-year-old played an original animation about littering. A 21-year-old transgender man in a March for Our Lives T-shirt spoke about his transition. Others rapped about mental health.

Three teens from Placer County registered and pre-registered to vote, with the help of delighted Democrats.

One became a Democrat. Two marked “no party preference.”

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Near a stack of free sandwiches, volunteers Leslye Janusz, 78, and David Deckman, 70, said they just wanted to be visible to the youth.

“This is one way they can be the change,” Janusz said. “Besides their music or talking to their friends, they can register to vote.”

Deckman said he has become more moderate with age. But he recently watched a documentary on Woodstock, which happened when he was young.

“Kids now are more idealistic,” he said. “God, that was us.”

Times staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.

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To come out on top in California’s primary, Democratic contenders must appeal to a patchwork of ethnic constituencies, among them the large Iranian American population that spans San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.