Rob Callender writes: What if the Democrats had a Party and young people didn’t show up?
After several cycles of higher-than-average youth turnout, many Millennials report feeling distinctly “meh” about Hillary Clinton. With a month to go until the presidential election, what—if anything—can muster Millennials (and their Centennial counterparts aged 19 and under) to stand up and be counted?
This isn’t a question many Democrats expected to address at this point in the cycle. Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns were buoyed by higher-than-average youth voter participation—a trend that actually began in the 2004 presidential election. And this year, the number of eligible-voter Millennials roughly equals the electoral heft of the long-dominant Baby Boomers. As recently as this spring, headlines heralded the return of the once-rare youth voter. And yet … something has sapped that early energy among young voters.
Speaking truth to power
Could young people—unconstrained by the status quo and unswayed by conventional wisdom—be open to Donald J. Trump’s iconoclastic message? In some respects, Millennials and Centennials seem almost gleeful about the prospect of speaking truth to power, goring sacred cows and shaking up the establishment.
Does this mean we could be looking at an unexpected Trump victory among young voters?
No, probably not. When it comes to the kinds of social issues that inspire strong, gut-level emotional responses, Democrats and young people are in overwhelming agreement. Diversity and inclusion—staples of Democratic stump speeches—are guiding principles for the younger generations that will usher in a minority-majority future in the United States. And on one social issue after another, young people look a lot like the Democratic Party’s base.
And yet, after falling in love with Bernie Sanders this spring, some young voters are finding it hard to fall in line with Hillary Clinton this autumn. There’s even a non-trivial percentage of young Sanders voters who intend to vote for Trump.
How can this possibly be? Young Republicans are one thing—a fairly steady minority of the youth population reliably chooses Republican candidates. But Sanders voters siding with Trump? That’s something else entirely.
For many disaffected or disengaged Sanders voters, Clinton suffers from some branding baggage. The perception is that she is familiar but not knowable. Familiarity—though it lacks the flash of the new—can be a good thing. But in Clinton’s case it’s undercut by dark rumors about secrets and scandals. There’s also the perception that she tailors different messages to different audiences—be they Wall Street speeches or private utterings about “deplorables.”
On another front, Clinton doesn’t offer much talk about creative destruction in her stump speeches, which sets her apart from Sanders and Trump. Her promise is to rework and perfect the system she knows so well. But this tinkering toward a more perfect union feels both too familiar and insufficient for modern challenges. Young voters are increasingly accustomed to radical shifts in culture and the marketplace—and those shifts often come from outside the system, not from within it.
Three keys to the White House
Contented or crestfallen, delighted or disenchanted, Millennials nonetheless will be responsible for weighty electoral decisions this year and for decades into the future. What can candidates do to energize and activate the youth vote? Being right on their issues is a necessary first step—but it’s not enough. Here are three keys to the White House, courtesy of Millennials and Centennials:
- Get clear: Kantar Futures’ extensive understanding of youth attitudes shows that Millennial and Centennial cohorts don’t just wear their values on their sleeves, they expect their brands (and, yes, politicians are brands) to do the same. Nearly 90% of voting-age young people say they appreciate it when brands make their values clear. That means a coherent, authentic message—one that sounds the same no matter who hears it. Bernie Sanders was great at this.
- Get pointed: Millennials and Centennials believe that old, established conventions and formalities have failed, and they’re ready to dispense with namby-pamby, focus-tested pabulum. The politics of playing nice hasn’t worked; they want their leaders to ditch the script. They’ll give politicians room to say controversial things (though policies are better punching bags than people). Most of all, they’re hungry for bold, gridlock-busting action, and they want to hear about consequences for the forces of inertia that stand in the way of progress. Trump has capitalized on this desire.
- Get together: Clear, pointed messages are vital—but in the calculus of youth politics, addition still beats division. Nearly 75% of voting-age young people say that not judging others is important to them, and 92% say everyone should make a positive difference in the world. Over and over in our work, Kantar Futures finds a strong spirit of cooperation and camaraderie among young people—and it’s a spirit that informs their understanding of what’s possible. Millennials and Centennials believe deeply that we’re stronger together—and that’s a sentiment Hillary Clinton harnesses for her own campaign slogan.