MANCHESTER, N.H. — At Manchester West High School in New Hampshire, some students, like Seanna Kelly, 17, embrace being in the heart of the presidential campaign. She has been attending stump speeches with her mom since 2016.
“I went to see [former New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie, and then I went to see [2016 Democratic nominee Hillary] Clinton at a town hall. And so I started getting into it — not as much as I am now, obviously,” Kelly said.
Kelly has even subscribed to all the candidates’ e-mails. And in the last year, she’s met Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Corey Booker.
“I was impressed by Buttigieg and Booker a lot, because I could tell they were really genuine," Kelly said. "You know, I think that a lot of them have been politicians for so long that you sort of get that vibe from them that makes them feel, not disingenuous, but makes them feel like they are politicians and they do sort of have that that persona on.”
That search for transparency is a recurring theme among students interviewed at the Manchester, N.H., high school — which might be unsurprising, given that the state was almost too close to call on election night 2016. Clinton won New Hampshire, but the hairline margin made something very clear: The Granite State is as deeply divided as it is decisively purple. And this election year, a shift in the state’s demographics could widen that margin.
Pew Research projects that one in 10 eligible voters in the nationwide 2020 election will be from Generation Z, which encompasses people born between 1997 and 2002. According to the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, 69,000 New Hampshire citizens turned 18 between 2016 and 2020.
With the state's primary less than a week away, the high school freshmen who watched Donald Trump get elected are now getting ready to cast their votes for the first time.
Top Policy Concerns
Of course, not all the students make politics a priority. Maya Gomes-VanPelt, an 18-year-old senior, said she hasn’t really been following the run-up to the election. Still, there’s no escaping the barrage of TV ads. She listed off some first names of Democratic contenders, but when asked about Elizabeth Warren, her response would strike fear in the Massachusetts senator's camp.
“I have not heard of her,” she said.
It doesn’t mean Gomes-VanPelt is not paying attention to issues. These students, most of whom will be able to vote in next week’s primary, listed climate change, gun violence, racial equality and border security as concerns. But the issue most top of mind? Health care.
“I know for a lot of people, that's hard, especially for myself, my family. Things are tight for a lot of people,” Gomes-Van Pelt said.
Her friend, Amber Partlow, 17, said she has stronger opinions about health care than any other topic, and tied it into her concerns about the cost of living and New Hampshire’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“And if [people] can't afford college, they can't afford to further their education and become more intelligent citizens who can have useful jobs," Partlow said. "Because we don't want people to be on the state's health care. We want people to be able to support themselves and be able to pay to go to the E.R. if they need to.”
Garang Kuol, 18, echoed their sentiment.
“My focus is on health care, because that's one of the few things that I believe we can work really well on," Kuol said. "And with the mental health issues that are coming out, I believe that people need help, and they're not really getting it because there's no balance.”
The Manchester West senior said that because of Bernie Sanders' consistency on issues, the Vermont senator has caught his attention.
“Bernie has been the same for quite a few years, and his views have always been strong. He's always believed in helping others and focusing on social issues,” Kuol said.
His classmate, Kevin Shegani, 18, is another Sanders supporter. Although he told WGBH News he doesn’t agree with Sanders on all issues, he listed health care as his top concern.
“I think the most important one for me is health care. I believe that we need to do Medicare for All,” Shegani said.
Impassioned young voters could once again shake things up at the polls this year. In the 2018 midterm elections, voter turnout for this historically checked-out demographic more than doubled across the country compared to 2014. Two years later, Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life reported that 43 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 participated in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, with Sanders earning more of their votes than Clinton and Trump combined.
Side-Eyeing Mainstream Media
When it comes to learning about candidates, some West Manchester students skip network news altogether.
Garang Kuol told WGBH News that he prefers to get his news wrap-ups from programs like "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah."
“I believe with the comedic spins, it’s a lot easier to take it in. And since I'm not really Republican and I don't really pay attention to Fox News, I want to see what the other people are seeing from time to time,” Kuol said.
His classmate, John Durand, 17, said he watches local TV news in the morning and some network news with his dad at night, but thinks most media are biased.
“It's hard to pick which one, because you could watch a bunch of different ones and they all say different things. So it's hard to determine what is the actual information,” said Durand, who supports Trump.
Seanna Kelly uses social media like Instagram and the BuzzFeed app to stay on top of what's happening.
“I don't really watch the news as much as I should just because I feel like it can be so upsetting. But I do make sure to keep up on certain news topics, especially when it comes to the election, like making sure that I'm staying up to date on each candidate and what's going on,” Kelly said.
Kevin Shegani, who’s also president of the school's National Honor Society, said he seeks out national news and analysis on YouTube through programs such as "Secular Talk," "Al-Jazeera" and "The Rational National." He still, however, tunes into local broadcast news.
“I think I've just become less trusting of old media, like cable news, because I don't think they do a very good job on things like asking questions. Like, I remember in one debate they didn't ask a single question about climate change. So that was very upsetting,” Shegani said.
John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern University, said given the massive shift in newsgathering over the last 15 years, it’s understandable that young people aren’t as accepting of traditional broadcast news as earlier generations.
“They have a hunger for authenticity. They see through attempts to assert a kind of authority in fake ways or perceived fake ways,” Wihbey said. “If you think about just the rise of the YouTuber and the rise of the user-generated video stream, you see in those videos something that I think a lot of news lacks, which is a kind of candor and a kind of informality and often a kind of self-deprecation. And sometimes it's snark and sarcasm, but sometimes it's just, like, being real.”
Searching For Authenticity
Issues and policies matter to these students as much as authenticity. But this newest generation of New Hampshire voters has come of age at a time when media have changed so dramatically and with that, so have their expectations about the way candidates communicate.
John Durand, a senior, follows Trump on Twitter and said while he thinks the president could tone it down a bit, he appreciates this stripped-down style of communicating.
“I don't think it's politically correct. I mean, sometimes it kind of has to be that way. I don't feel like everything should just be like, all, like, easygoing. You've got to tell the truth of what's going on,” Durand said. “Like when [President Franklin] Roosevelt did the fireside talk. That was good to keep people informed. If he did something more on, like, a weekly basis, that would be good.”
It's perhaps an unsurprising take from a generation that has grown up with Twitter and YouTube — a generation in search of something that transcends the hype in an every-growing media landscape.
Kevin Shegani put it simply: “I think what we learned from the election of Donald Trump is that a lot of people in this country are tired of your standard 1992 politician who says scripted things.”