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The 'Trump Show' has millennials' attention...but will they vote?

We asked editors at college publications across the country: What presidential candidates and issues are students buzzing about on your campus? In this third installment of CNBC's politics on campus series, Sonali Seth, editorial director of USC's Daily Trojan, writes that students there are fascinated with the "Trump Show."

Sonali Seth
Source: Mimi Nguyen
Sonali Seth

The 2016 campaign has been the unpredictable election of unpredictable proportions. A year ago, it was difficult to imagine that former reality television star Donald Trump would be dominating the GOP field with a 27-percent lead. And few saw Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders as an electable Democratic candidate, yet now he is trailing behind Hillary Clinton at 29 percent — a higher poll percentage than Barack Obama in the October before the 2008 presidential election.

And while the unprecedented nature of social media name-calling and GOP debate bickering has provided Generation Y with fascinating water cooler gossip, it may have also created just the right mixture of hilarity and partisanship to pique the interest of Generation X, who have had historically dismal voter turnout. And on college campuses, the effect is undeniable.

"This election,you have the intersection of a lot of different unique campaigns and unique candidates," said Jenny Di, director of USC's Political Student Assembly. "Because of that, students are engaging more than they might have been than if there were any type of typical candidates."

Part of the entertainment value comes from The Donald, whose inflammatory comments serve largely as conversation pieces for the generation that grew up watching his polarizing personality fire people on "Celebrity Apprentice" and as the object of jokes on "Saturday Night Live" long before he ever pursued the position of the leader of the free world.

So, while Trump may not be a serious candidate for millennials — among this age group, Hillary Clinton's lead grows against Trump, 51 percent to 25 percent, in a recent Zogby Analytics Poll — he merges the realms of entertainment and politics in a way that is so unintentionally funny that it begs to be discussed.

And this entry point of interest into the 2016 election could begin a greater movement toward political awareness, at least at the presidential level. When Trump calls immigrants "criminals" and "rapists," it's easy for millennials to laugh at his ignorance, but to do so requires a basic exploration of the xenophobia and fear from which his perspective is grounded.

And for the Republican party, having Trump as the party spokesman doesn't exactly paint the GOP in a favorable light, considering that many millennials had little knowledge or sympathy towards the GOP's policies to begin with.

But before we thank Donald Trump for ending political apathy among youth, we have to consider whether this political involvement will manifest in a meaningful way — namely, whether millennials will show up to voting booths.

A Fusion Massive Millennial Poll found that 77 percent of 18 to 34-year-old are "absolutely certain" or "very likely" to vote in 2016. There's no question that that's a sizable percentage. But before the 2012 election, a similar youth poll conducted by CIRCLE found that 67.3 percent of young adults were "very" or "extremely" likely to vote — although only 49 percent of millennials actually did.

So it's natural to be skeptical about whether increased excitement will actually motivate millennials to get involved in politics. But the more recent Fusion poll still saw a 10-percent increase in millennials who say they would vote compared to the 2011 CIRCLE poll.

The University of Southern California (USC) campus.
Getty Images
The University of Southern California (USC) campus.

Perhaps, then, it's best to be cautiously optimistic about whether youth will take the initiative to go out to the polls on primary and national election days.

It's a good time to be a young adult in this country. Hillary Clinton is trying — and hilariously failing— to connect with us using emojis, Ted Cruz is trying to impress us by telling out his Obama memes and candidates across the board are increasing their social media presence as a means of free — or paid —advertisement geared almost exclusively to millennials.

But if millennials want to use our collective privilege to become an actually significant political constituency, we have to show that we care — beyond social media slacktivism and Donald Trump memes. We have to vote.

Commentary by Sonali Seth, a sophomore studying political science and policy, planning, development at the University of Southern California. She is also the editorial director of USC's Daily Trojan. You can find her musing about national and Los Angeles politics on Twitter @sonalers.