Escambia County in Florida’s Panhandle has long been considered Republican country.
Even NextGen Florida, the progressive young voter registration giant, has only recently employed a field organizer in Escambia to make inroads in an area largely ignored by Democratic campaigns.
But with all the talk about a youth vote fueling a Blue Wave in this year’s midterm election, there’s a lingering question about which way young voters in this county will vote – or if they will vote at all.
In the southern part of the county, a Republican-dominated local government oversees the port town of Pensacola, and Navy divers practice in the Gulf waters out of the nearby Naval Air Station.
At first glance, it seems like a county waiting to elect Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Navy servicemember Ron DeSantis to the governor’s seat.
But for Kyra Ketch, 24, the only NextGen Florida field organizer in the county, no area is “too red.”
Though, “it’s kind of challenge working in a more red community,” says Ketch.
Ketch started organizing for the progressive voter registration organization a month ago. Before Ketch signed on, NextGen worked to mobilize voters in Pensacola throughout this election cycle through a combination of digital ads, direct mail and phone/text banking. The group also partnered with and funded organizations like For Our Future Florida which has long had an organizing presence in the area, NextGen says.
“A lot of young people don’t want to identify with Democrats or Republicans. They identify as Independent or no party at all,” Ketch says. “And I think that’s because we’re seeing this rise of young people who are not so much passionate about candidates but are passionate about issues.”
Young voters (Floridians ages 18-29) are notoriously bad at voting in elections, especially in “off-year” midterms. But this year already looks different.
As of six days before the election, young voter engagement is nearly triple what it was in 2014, according to the Election Smith website run by Dan Smith, University of Florida professor and chair of UF’sdepartment of political science.
In Escambia County, registered Republicans outweigh registered Democrats at roughly 45 percent to 34 percent. The rest of voters have either no party affiliation (about 20 percent) or belong to minor parties (under one percent).
When Ketch knocks on a door Saturday morning in a sunny suburban neighborhood where trees cast long, lazy shadows across the road, Derek Hutchison, 28, answers the door in his pajamas. He says he and his brother, and roughly 20 other family members, have already voted “Progressive, always.”
Hutchison works at a local grocery store and has lived in Escambia County for a little over a decade. He says that when he talks about his political beliefs with people in the area, he has noticed people tend to lean more progressive than they let on.
“I think it boils down to just being a decent person. And as long as you vote with your heart, you can’t really go wrong,” Hutchison says.
Hutchison is young enough to be included in the young voter demographic. He says it’s important for young people to turn out to the polls and not “make the same mistake” as two years ago when they were too complacent to vote, thinking Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for president.
“We have to get out there just like we did for Obama,” Hutchison says. “People don’t really realize that this Republican Party is not your father’s Republican Party. This isn’t Reagan, this is a totally different type of administration. In my opinion, it’s scary. That’s the word that comes to mind.”
Later on in the day, Ketch knocks on Jeanelle Mangum’s door. Mangum is a 32-year-old high school biology teacher who has already voted.
She says she’s noticed a lot of her colleagues at work struggle most with finances and says she was attracted to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s proposal to increase teachers’ wages.
Mangum is just outside the age range to be considered a young voter, but she says she and her family are still more concerned with issues on the ballot than voting down a partisan line.
“Yes, it’s true you should be loyal, but I think that in this day and age, we need to start holding these candidates accountable and seeing how they’re really addressing the issues that we deal with daily because they’re our leaders,” Mangum says. “So we have to pick leaders that speak for us and what we want.”
Ketch has plans to knock on 150 doors throughout the day. She leaves a sticky note with Election Day information on the doors of people who do not answer.
About 10 miles away from the neighborhood Ketch is canvassing, the Pensacola International Airport is being readied for an important event: President Trump is coming here to rally for Republican candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis, and the rest of the Republican ticket.
Trump is set to speak at 6:30 p.m., and already at 3 p.m. the hangar is filling with people carrying signs and wearing campaign shirts. Some shirts allude to a Trump candidacy in 2020.
Most of the people who fill the hangar look to be in their late 30s or older. The young people who filter in – the “youth vote” age – come in pairs or groups of three. A couple of larger groups of men in their 20s have their heads shaven in an unmistakable military style: Naval Air Station Pensacola is nearby.
William Jacklin, 18, walks in with two other men near to his age. Jacklin is a political science major at the local state college in Pensacola. He’s from Michigan but is registered to vote in Escambia County.
He says he’s noticed younger people like himself are more involved this year and thinks it’s because younger people have realized what kind of impact they can have if they are politically engaged.
“I think people are realizing that if they want to see change, they have to go out and be the change themselves,” Jacklin says.
Nick Gilbertson, 19, who entered the rally with Jacklin, says he sometimes gets frustrated with people his age. Gilbertson majors in criminal justice.
“I just feel like a lot of young people will vote based on what they hear off the news,” Gilbertson says. “So if they hear – (President Trump) is a racist, they’ll go, ‘oh, he’s a racist, I’m not going to vote for him,’ rather than doing their research.”
Jacklin says he is not deaf to what the president says, but that he supports how much he feels the president has accomplished economically. The economy is Jacklin’s top political issue, followed by protecting the Second Amendment and maintaining the military.
The economy is the top issue for most Republicans, whereas Democrats are motivated more by social issues, says Halle Hughes, 19.
Hughes and her friends drove in from near Tallahassee to attend the rally and have already voted during the week. Hughes says that when she went to vote, people were outside the polls campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
“I question why we (Republicans) don’t campaign more, but I’m also not totally against that because it’s more low-key and I feel like the silent vote is such a thing,” she says. “Liberals kind of shove it in your face and that pushes me more away.”
Sara Preddy, 18, who is also a registered Republican in Leon County, says she has noticed younger people focus more on issues in this campaign cycle, but that she chooses which candidates to support based on morals.
“As far as young voters go, I feel that most people are uneducated and like to just go with the flow of what’s popular. You see that in things like pop culture, music, what’s in and what’s not,” Preddy says. “I feel that’s the same in politics, as well. And if you actually educate yourself and you align your morals to what you think other candidates have their morals aligned with, you’ll find who you actually should be voting for.”
The strength of the youth vote is something political analysts are hesitant to depend upon given historical patterns. But younger voters have the potential to change the outcome of the election.
We’ll find out Nov. 6.
Note, 11/5/18: A previous version of this story said Quincy was in Leon County. The story has been updated with corrections made.