Young people aren't excited about the 2016 presidential race. If you look far enough down the ballot, however, it's clear that young people have found plenty of ways to stay involved in politics; their methods are just less visible if you're only looking at the national stage. MTV News talked to seven candidates — some too young to rent a car but still confident that they know far more about what millennials care about than the people already in power — about what it's like to win, to lose, and to try to convince fellow young voters that they need to get passionate about politics.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
Why run this year?
Solomon Goldstein-Rose, 22
Goldstein-Rose just won the Democratic primary for the 3rd District in Massachusetts, which means he will be a state representative next year. He also just graduated from Brown University and plans to focus on climate change and education while serving.
I decided when I heard that there was going to be this open seat, that our longtime, beloved representative — who got me into politics when I was 12 — was retiring this year. I thought that this was a unique opportunity and I could hopefully be one of many new young people getting into politics. I'm not even going to be the youngest; I won my primary, but a 21-year-old just got elected in Cape Cod. There's a 27-year-old — there's a cohort of us coming in.
Rebekah Johansen Bydlak, 26
Bydlak just finished her campaign in the Republican primary for Florida's 1st District congressional seat. She was endorsed by Ron Paul and Representative Justin Amash but only got 8 percent of the vote. Bydlak wanted to focus on government spending if elected.
Being involved in politics has always been natural. I was homeschooled, and with that you kind of grow up understanding that politics affects your daily life. I currently work with an advocacy organization working on fiscal responsibility, so it seemed kind of like a natural step to try to have a seat at the table when all of these incredibly important decisions that will affect the rest of our lives will be made.
Sharlaine LaClair, 35
LaClair came in second in the top-two primary for a state representative seat in Washington's 42nd District. She has worked with the American Indian tribe Lummi Nation for most of her career and is also a member. LaClair cares most about education — a hot issue in Washington this year after the state legislature was sanctioned for not fully funding public schools.
I've been working full-time, and going to school full-time, and I'm also a single mom, so I was really not sure about stepping forward because I knew how much work it would be. ... I voted for Bernie in the primary. I was very hopeful for his candidacy. And people do feel very disheartened, and feel like their voice wasn't heard. They feel disenfranchised, and people feeling disenfranchised is why I stepped forward to do this, to listen to people who feel their voices aren't being heard.
Kaitlyn Beck, 20
If Beck wins in the 49th District, she'd be the youngest woman ever to serve in the Washington state legislature — and the first transgender woman to ever serve in the State House. She wants to ban conversion therapy for LGBT youth if elected.
Ultimately the reason I decided to file was that the incumbent Democrat was a Hillary Clinton endorser. I was a Bernie Sanders Democrat, and there wasn't going to be a challenger in the race. I decided that she needed a challenger, and I wanted to fill that niche. I live in an incredibly Bernie Sanders district.
Were there any preconceptions you had about campaigning that were quickly proved wrong?
Goldstein-Rose: Many people don't appreciate when you come to their door. I got mistaken for a Jehovah's Witness, a Mormon proselytizer, or someone selling solar panels, because my motto was "Energy to Lead." Once I said I was a candidate they usually loosened up and were interested.
Brandon Dean, 24
Dean just won his first-ever election and will soon be sworn in as the youngest mayor in Brighton, Alabama's history. The Democrat recently graduated from Howard University. His favorite moment of the campaign was when a couple who had been living in the city of about 3,000 people for more than 70 years went to go vote for him after their absentee ballots never came in the mail, even though he was a third of their age.
One thing I learned, even after four years of studying political science, was just how consequentially involvement and education at the local level, the most microscopic level, matters. When it comes to having a literate, conscious, aware electorate, it doesn't start at the national level, it doesn't start at the state level. It starts in neighborhoods in small towns. We have missed our opportunity, especially in disadvantaged communities, to educate people about how the national conversation is more sensitive to what's happening in our neighborhoods. We have a long way to go before we realize what it means to be inclusive of all people and have representation in all areas of government that is truly empathetic.
Christy Matthews, 22
Matthews is currently a student at the University of Connecticut and just finished her first campaign — which took place while she was still taking classes. She lost, getting 18 percent to her Democratic primary opponent's 82 percent. This was an all-millennial race — Laura Bartok, who won, is 32.
It was brutal. ... I quit one of my jobs and just did school and my campaign and lived off my savings for those last couple months so I could focus on finals and still have time to go knock on doors. It's hard. Running for office is such a strain on your life. But at the end of the day, I think all the benefits outweigh taking $1,000 or $2,000 out of my savings account.
Was your family surprised?
Dean: I was surprised about their reaction. I finally worked up the nerve to tell my grandmother I was running, and she said, "Run, baby, run!" I was surprised! She is typically not the most encouraging person when it comes to drastic, dramatic things. She wanted me to get an education and be successful, but this was a whole other level.
Goldstein-Rose: No. I come from a very politically engaged family. My parents are both activists — I was on the picket line at two months old when we lived in D.C., protesting to end the genocide in Bosnia. That's where I got this from.
Did you face any judgement because of your age on the trail or in office?
Bydlak: You can look up the YouTube video of another candidate in the primary, who also did not win, saying that the age should be raised to 45 to be in Congress.
(Fast-forward to 34:27 for the exchange)
Things like that are ridiculous and annoying, but I think the natural skepticism you see from voters and the general public has to do with the fact that young people don't often run, much less hold office, and I don't blame people for being skeptical of seeing someone they don't naturally expect to be running for Congress and raise an eyebrow. That's why it's important that no matter how it goes — you might not win — young people should step up and run. There's everything to gain and little to be afraid of. ... And it's worth mentioning, the guy who ended up winning was 34.
Goldstein-Rose: That was the biggest hurdle we had to overcome, getting people to take me seriously. If you're a 22-year-old candidate, people think, "What's he all about? Is he going to be yelling and screaming about some crazy young-person thing?" Like, no! In the debates, it was helpful, people saw that I wasn't crazy and I was articulate.
LaClair: I've had a couple people say, "Wow, you're young!" And then when I tell them the public policy experience I already have, some people say I'm overqualified, which is kind of crazy.
Melanie Stambaugh, 25
Stambaugh won her first race in 2014 at 24 and is currently the youngest woman in the Washington State Legislature. When the young Republican surprised everyone and won, her county's Democratic chair said, “I don’t believe being a Daffodil Queen qualifies you to pass laws and work for your constituents in Olympia.” She sponsored legislation that would let women get a yearly supply of birth control — which was supported by every single woman in the state legislature.
I was running in my first election in 2014, and I was the youngest woman to win since the 1930s in Washington State. I had a soon-to-be seatmate, a young gentleman who had been elected at age 25. I didn't see a difference between him running for office at age 25 and me running at 23. However, in many conversations with voters, being a female did have an impact. I had conversations with folks where they would say, "If you could get some glasses or dye your hair from blonde..." like I would have to be brunette to be taken seriously. And that was one of the most unexpected pieces of the campaign early on. I had to work hard to showcase a very serious, deliberate side. ... There were a few experiences I had that reminded me of how much younger I am than the other legislators. Like being prevented from walking into our committee room because they didn't think I was a member, that happened a couple of times. I take pure joy out of those moments. When people think of a legislator, they have a picture in their minds. I don't fit that mold. People expect me to get mad about it, but I'm actually excited, because I want to change that definition.
Beck: Most of the reaction has been incredibly positive, actually. As a first-time candidate, a 20-year-old transgender woman, I won 24 percent of my primary vote, which was absolutely incredible; nobody expected me to get more than 5 percent.
Matthews: People were nothing but supportive. And it was interesting — I'm 22, my opponent was 32, and the Republican nominee was 42, so you had this tri-generational difference between three women who were all great candidates. ... We had this one reporter, who I mentioned offhandedly to that I sometimes played Pokémon Go while I was walking from door to door because it gave me something else to do, and it became the highlight of the story for her. I didn't like that, because I felt like she was trying to pigeonhole me as this very, very young person who was still playing video games and all these things. I have nothing against Pokémon Go, but it wasn't a big thing.
What was it like when you found out you won?
Dean: I went home, I had a suit there that I had dry-cleaned for the Election Night party. It was more of a victory suit than a loser suit, so I was hoping I would win. Before I put the suit on, I wanted to know what the results of the election were — maybe I would put on an older suit if I didn't win. I waited for a little while; I was prepared for a very long night. [When I found out I won], the first person I went to was my grandmother. I may have screamed, "I think I won!" But I was hesitant. And she said, "Really?" And I said, "Yup, yup!" And it escalated from there. It was a feeling that I don't think has been emulated too many times in my life. I paid my way through college, and it was difficult. Many semesters I thought I wasn't going to go back. I've had a blessed life, but there haven't been many moments on that level, in which I could experience pure exaltation about an accomplishment.
LaClair: I was in a four-way race, and I thought I'd get good results, but I never thought I'd get 41 percent of the vote. When I saw the first count, I was just astounded. People kept telling me, "It's a really conservative district, it will be really difficult," but I wasn't that far behind the Republican incumbent. I was so happy with that. And we worked really hard, so that night was the best sleep I've gotten in forever.
This isn’t a particularly heartwarming election cycle on the national level. How do you think you keep young people excited enough to stay involved this year and in the future?
Beck: Being able to speak to young people directly is where you get to change that narrative. On September 10, our local Young Democrats were doing some voter registration. They had a gentleman who'd just turned 18. They tried to get him to register to vote, and he said no, because he wanted to support Bernie Sanders but Bernie Sanders wasn't the nominee. And which point I was like, "Hey, look at me, I'm a big Bernie Sanders endorser. If you do register to vote, you'll have the opportunity to vote for me." And he registered to vote, knowing that there was still a candidate who supported his views.
Stambaugh: In this political climate, if we lean out, we're not going to change it. The other thing I share with people who aren't sure about voting, I tell them that when the ballot comes, they should go to the bottom of the ballot and work their way up. People at the bottom are going to be closest to you. They are your local government leaders, they are the ones who are going to make the policy you can actually see.
Goldstein-Rose: Mostly I see it as a huge problem that can't be solved in one election. Millennials have, for basically their entire lives, had a dysfunctional federal government. We get frustrated at the process and we get disengaged because we don't see anything happening, and then because we're disengaged, things get worse, and we get more frustrated and more disengaged. It's a serious problem, and I don't think I have any answers from my one campaign. But I'm very optimistic.
Bydlak: It's our future that's at stake, so we don't have an option [not to] getting involved, one way or another. In this election cycle, for better or worse, young people and nontraditional voters have been empowered, so we should seize that momentum and continue, because the battle for our future is not going to end or begin on November 2016. It's a long game. Young people have to realize that we just have to dust ourselves off and keep going.