Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
CNN re-interviewed high school students after the final presidential debate
Despite the negativity of the campaign, many students remain somewhat hopeful about the future
During this most unusual of presidential campaigns, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with tweens and teens who may be #tooyoungtovote, but who are not too young to be focused on the issues they care about most.
Part of our coverage has involved inviting students to watch the three presidential debates and then asking for their reaction.
Middle schoolers in Montville, New Jersey, told us after the first showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that the two didn’t “play nice.”
After the second presidential debate, members of a champion high school debate team in Atlanta said they wished that instead of interruptions and criticisms of their opponent, the candidates would have focused more on the issues and what they would do if they became president.
Thirteen juniors and seniors in Caldwell, New Jersey, most of whom we interviewed six months ago, agreed 100% with their Atlanta peers following the final debate of what will likely go down as the most negative presidential campaign in history.
Ashvin Nagarajan, a junior at James Caldwell High School, said he has been incredibly frustrated by the lack of deep discussion of the issues during the campaign.
“It’s so essential for the American people to understand what issues are actually going on in the nation,” said Nagarajan. “We don’t want a public that seems confused by what each candidate stands for. We need clarity and information to be widespread.”
Doran Abdi, also a junior, said he hoped to hear more about the concerns the next president will have to address. “That’s what they should be talking about, not about who deleted what messages or who said what,” said Abdi, referring to Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, and controversial comments Trump has made in the past. “It should be about what we’re going to do in the next four years or even eight years.”
‘More the reality show nowadays than an election’
If so many teens – and presumably Americans of all ages – want the candidates to spend more time talking about the issues and less time bickering, why doesn’t it happen?
“It’s kind of more the reality show nowadays than an election,” said Megan West, a high school senior. “I think it’s going to hit home on November 8th when people realize that this is their future and it’s not just entertainment, and they realize that these policies do matter and maybe they should have been more educated.”
Kassie Sarkar, a senior, said she finds it insulting to think that we’ve gotten to a point where politics needs to be more of a “reality show” in order to keep people engaged. “I can watch a regular debate and be engaged,” she said. “I can look at regular issues and be engaged. It’s not hard for me. I don’t think that’s hard for most of America.”
But Oliver King, also a senior, believes the public, in essence, is getting what it deserves. “People do not care, simple as that, and they don’t understand politics enough to make informed decisions,” he said. “They just take what the media tells them at face value and don’t bother to do any further research.”
At the same time, we have also lost a sense of “nuance” in our politics, King said. “There used to be debates about different sides but now people are afraid to concede at least one point to the other side and admit they were wrong.”
The issues students care about most
Six months ago, I asked King and his classmates what was the issue they cared about most. When I interviewed them again after the final presidential debate, I asked if they felt their issues received the attention and focus they hoped they would get during the presidential campaign. Most of them said no.
Rebecca Davenport, back in May, said she may be too young to vote but she wasn’t too young to worry about climate change.
“I don’t think it was in any way addressed like it should have been, even less so than I expected it to be,” said Davenport, a senior. “The fact that that hasn’t been addressed is so detrimental to the future of our country.”
Ana Caravela, a junior, who lost her uncle in the September 11 attacks, said the nation’s security and protecting veterans should be the top issues for the next president. (Her brother is attending the U.S. Naval Academy.)
She feels the candidates could be talking more about what they would do to help veterans.
“I think we need to focus on them (veterans) a little bit more than on focusing on people who aren’t even in the country yet,” said Caravela. “The people that are fighting for us we should be focusing on because they’re trying to support us, so I think they deserve the best.”
When I asked the students if they were hopeful about the next four years, some said it all depends on who wins on Election Day.
“If Trump gets elected, I’m hopeful,” said Thomas Salandra, a senior. “If Hillary gets elected, I’m not hopeful. As a proud supporter of our Second Amendment, I think if she becomes president, I’ll lose my right to own a gun and I think that would be a terrible thing for this country. We’ve had that right since our founding.”
Emily Freed, who supports more of Clinton’s policies than Trump’s, said she’s fairly hopeful about the next four years but the next president will have a tall order ahead of him or her.
“Right now our country is very divisive and I don’t think the president will necessarily fix that,” she said. “I think the way Congress is and the way the public is at large is a huge issue and I can’t see either being remedied in the next 10 years (or) in the next four, but I think no matter what, it’s good to have hope because if you don’t, what else do you have?”
‘This could be a turning point’
The level of engagement by young people in the political process is, perhaps, a reason to be hopeful about the future. Despite all the nastiness and the tawdry content of this presidential campaign, young people have tuned in and are only going to remain involved in the future, some of them say.
“I mean the approval rates for both candidates is quite low but at the same time, I think that given we’re all teenagers and we’re all about to go into college, we’re obviously following this election a lot more closely than any of the others,” said Mark Javornik, a senior.
Javornik also doesn’t worry about any breakdown in the country no matter who is elected. He believes the media tends to “dramatize” everything and projected the same kind of dismal outlook before the Obama-Romney election in 2012.
“‘I think people tend to be drama queens when election time comes,” he said. “But a few months after, people forget. They go back to what they were doing and it’s not really a big deal.”
Rachael Weisman, a senior, said our country has “bounced back from really bad times” before. “There might be down times in these next couple of years and our country might … go down a little but I feel like we always bounce back.”
Jenna Martinez, also a senior, said she remains hopeful because of all the other great candidates out there. “I know there are 300 million people in this country just about and somewhere out there is somebody who can be good for our nation,” she said.
Lydia Wielgus, another senior, said she thinks it’s a really “sad reality” that we even have to question whether we’re going to have hope for the future. As a country, we need to take a moment and think about how we’ve gotten to this point, she said.
“We really need to take a step back, like as an entire nation, and re-evaluate what we’re doing … and I think this is a really good point for us to … change everything.”
Join the conversation
This will go down in the history books as one of the most insane elections in U.S. history, she said, but the unprecedented nature of the campaign also brings an opportunity.
“This could be a turning point for us. It all depends on how we’re going to twist it and make it either positive or negative. It could go down and be a disaster but we can make it into something great.”
If you have kids, are they optimistic or pessimistic about the future following the presidential campaign? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.