Joe Tringale, a senior at Suffolk University in Boston, sports a bumper sticker on his 1999 Lexus that reads "Big Government Sucks." He says he gets a lot of dirty looks when he drives around his famously liberal home state of Massachusetts. But he doesn't care.
"When people hear, 'Hope and…' their next thought is usually 'Change,'" Tringale says, referring to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign slogan. "I want when people hear 'Big Government,' their immediate next thought is 'Sucks.'"
Tringale was sitting outside the Suffolk student center on a sunny afternoon late last week, handing out "I [Heart] Capitalism" buttons. He is the president of Suffolk's College Republicans chapter, co-chair of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans, and the state field director for Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that advocates for free markets and smaller government. He's been especially busy in the previous few weeks — November 8 marked one year until Election Day — driving to college campuses in eastern Massachusetts to register voters and explain why it is that big government sucks.
It's an uphill battle. Nationwide, 27 percent of people ages 18 to 25 identify as Democrats, while just 18 percent identify as Republicans, according to a 2014 Pew study. Voters with a college degree who live in the Northeast are more likely to be Democrats. And a January Gallup poll found that Massachusetts is the most liberal state in the country. Tringale, however, is part of a small but passionate group of young conservatives on college campuses in New England who are excited and mobilizing for 2016.
"There's plenty of us," he says of his fellow Massachusetts student Republicans.
This includes, Tringale says, his boyfriend.
* * *
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, a stunned GOP commissioned a report to figure out why it happened. Obama trounced Romney 67 percent to 30 percent among young voters, and the GOP's self-assessment pulled no punches: "Our Party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones."
Part of the reason the GOP has struggled to appeal to youth in recent decades, says Bill Whelan, a research fellow focusing on campaigns and elections at the Hoover Institute, is because its presidential candidates have almost always been older than Democratic candidates. (Only twice since 1968 has the Democrat been older than the Republican — that year, when Hubert Humphrey was two years older than Richard Nixon, and in 2004, when John Kerry was three years older than George W. Bush.)
But in the 2016 election, many millennials may actually have an easier time identifying with the younger and more diverse GOP field than with the older, more homogenous Democratic roster. The Republicans boast two candidates under the age of 50 — Marco Rubio, who only just recently paid off his student loans and who talks about his love of hip-hop, and Ted Cruz, an avowed comic book and science fiction geek. Every single one of the Republican candidates is younger than Hillary Clinton, who will be 69 on inauguration day.
Whelan singled out Rubio as "a chance for Republicans to reach out to a younger generation with a real peer-to-peer message" in a way that the Clinton campaign cannot. And in 2016, Whelan says, Republicans will "need to awaken those young voters and get them to turn out."
Aaron Henricks, the president of the Harvard Republican Club, says he is attempting to do just that in a city sometimes called the People's Republic of Cambridge.
According to Henricks, it's tough to compete with supporters of Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old self-identified Socialist Democratic, who he admits is "the most popular guy on campus right now." According to a Harvard Crimson survey of this year's incoming freshmen, 65 percent of the Class of 2019 described themselves as either somewhat liberal or very liberal, compared to just 12 percent who identified as somewhat or very conservative. But even among the "Feel the Bern" posters hanging in dorm windows around Harvard Square, there is a conservative movement on campus that is very much alive and growing, Henricks insists.
'Anyone who is on a college campus volunteering or even just putting a sticker on their door for a Republican candidate is standing for a radically different Washington.'
This year marks the first time that millennials will surpass baby boomers as the country's largest demographic. If they vote — and it's a big if, as the turnout for 18 to 29 year olds was less than 20 percent in last year's midterm elections, the lowest ever — they could be a major determiner of the outcome.
Young voters in the US are disproportionately liberal, and conservative students at Harvard, Suffolk, MIT, and Boston University readily admitted to VICE News that they are a minority at their schools. But while a 2015 poll by the Harvard Institute of Policy shows that liberal college students in the US outnumber conservatives by seven points, that gulf was 17 points in 2007.
Ava Mack, a junior at Boston University and president of the school's chapter of College Republicans, says that her group is smaller than the school's College Democrats, but that it's more vocal. Students in BU's College Republican chapter have been driving to neighboring New Hampshire to see campaigning candidates, organizing voter drives, and, Mack says, doing "everything we can to get our name out." Many students with whom VICE News spoke, including Mack and Henricks, predict that young Republicans will be a decisive force in 2016 in much the same way youth mobilized for Obama in the last two elections.
Whelan is skeptical that young conservatives are a sleeping giant for the Republican party, but he does acknowledge that they are an "underutilized asset" the GOP needs to tap into. "In a narrow election like this," he says, "you have to drive out as much of your base as you can, you need to awaken those voters and get them to turn out."
Today's college students have effectively never known a Washington not paralyzed by partisan gridlock. Henricks says that he and his peers equate Obama's presidency with the federal government's dysfunction, regardless of which party has been responsible for it. And that resulting disillusionment is what inspired 22-year-old Charlie Kirk to start Turning Point USA, the group Tringale was representing at Suffolk, three years ago.
"There is a growing undercurrent in this country that young people are increasingly distrustful of politicians and of Washington, DC," Kirk says. Obama may have campaigned as an outsider and change agent, but he has now been in the White House since before many college-aged voters started high school.
Young Republicans with whom VICE News spoke in Boston were quick to distance themselves from the socially conservative stances the GOP takes on several issues — immigration, abortion, gay marriage — by saying they were "socially liberal and fiscally conservative." Mack says she is "obviously liberal" on social issues, and that it is frustrating when people assume her beliefs mirror those of current Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
"The fact that I have to explain myself is kind of indicative of the problem in the Republican party," she says. Elizabeth Gliza, a junior at MIT, often doesn't tell people she's a Republican because they assume, she says, that it means she's "a white supremacist or something."
Fifty-three percent of millennials across the political spectrum say they would vote for a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate, according to a poll by Reason — and many students say debt is the main reason for their fiscal conservatism. The class of 2015 graduated with the most student debt in American history, with an average of more than $35,000 per student. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of a college education is the issue that most concerns college students, according to a 2015 poll by the Panetta Institute. Students in Massachusetts with whom VICE News spoke cited the likelihood of getting a job after graduation as the main reason they plan to vote Republican.
"Everyone [at the college level] is thinking about their future," Mack says. "So going into an environment where I do have upward mobility, I'm not being taxed to death, I can keep some of my money and do what I want with it, I think that's very attractive to young people."
* * *
Sixty-one percent of college students say they prefer a less experienced presidential candidate who would drive change, according to the 2015 Panetta poll. And on college campuses in Massachusetts, a Republican can feel like an outsider candidate simply because he or she is a Republican.
"Anyone who is on a college campus volunteering or even just putting a sticker on their door for a Republican candidate is standing for a radically different Washington than [it] is right now," Henricks says. For students who "came into political awareness under Bush, you see the left as the agent of change. But if you grew up under Obama, you have a different conception of who the status quo is."
The same desire for change has also played a significant role in the groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders among millennials. In fact, several conservative students pointed out to VICE News that their concerns in this election are similar to the ones Sanders is campaigning on, like economic opportunity and reducing the power of the Washington political class. Some students, like Tringale, say they respect Sanders more than Hillary Clinton because of his consistency.
Fewer than a dozen people approached the Turning Point USA table in the three hours Tringale stood outside the Suffolk student center. But that did not seem to bother him — he was cheerful and optimistic as he packed up the mostly untouched pamphlets, stickers, and buttons espousing the virtues of capitalism.
"The 2016 election looks cool," he says. "I mean, it's a shit show, but it's fun."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928