Hillary Clinton has long struggled with younger voters, but the problem now threatens to cost her the election. Clinton’s address to millennials this week underscored her awareness of how crucial they are to her chances in November. But her support from voters ages 18 to 35 has declined by double digits since August, raising an urgent question for Democrats: Why are millennial voters so reluctant to embrace Clinton?
On the surface, Clinton should do well with younger voters. Millennials are the most progressive generation in America, and Hillary Clinton’s voting record in the Senate was reliably liberal on most issues. Millennials strongly support gender equality even more strongly than they do racial equality, so backing the first female candidate for president from a major party should be a no-brainer.
But millennials also grew up in the shadow of the Great Recession, and this has radicalized them in a way that is often difficult for older generations to comprehend. In a recent survey, millennials favored socialism over capitalism by more than ten percentage points; by contrast, seniors favored capitalism by more than 40 points. For many young people, the first great civil-rights movement of their lifetimes was Occupy Wall Street—primarily a class-conscious revolt against financial elites, as opposed to a classic civil-rights struggle over racial discrimination.
To many millennials, attaining their parents’ quality of life seems impossible. Nearly half of millennials questioned said in a Harvard University survey last year that the American dream wasn’t just difficult to achieve but actually “dead” for them. A combination of high tuition costs, low-wage jobs or non-paying internships, and skyrocketing rents and mortgages have created a sense in this age cohort of anger and desperation. It is true that millennials are more optimistic about the future than older generations, but this is largely because they have decades until retirement, and are confident that their generation will be able to bring about the changes necessary to a more stable future.
The three other events that have shaped millennials’ worldview have been America’s wars in the Middle East, the rising threat of climate change, and the fight for gay marriage—all of which rank high on young voters’ list of concerns. Young voters have spent more of their lives with America at war than at peace, and will be directly affected by some of the most devastating impacts of global warming. Meanwhile, the most prominent social issue in millennials’ formative years has been the fight for marriage equality and equal protections for LGBTQ Americans.
All of which leads to Clinton’s dilemma. While she has been a reliably liberal voice over the years, she has not been a radical one, and she has taken stances that rankle many young voters. Her vote for the Iraq War and refusal to apologize for it afterward cost her dearly among millennials when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008. Her comparative closeness to Wall Street as senator from New York, and her decision to give speeches to firms like Goldman Sachs—even if they did not compromise her political judgment, as she argues—set her at odds with the Occupy generation. Her guarded support of hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”) both domestically and overseas has earned the ire of climate change activists. She has also, in many cases unfairly, been tainted by association with the relatively conservative positions that her husband’s administration took on gay rights and trade. And speaking of trade, the Obama administration’s embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—and Clinton’s slowness to come out against it—did not do her credit with many young voters inspired by Bernie Sanders’s fiery anti-TPP opposition.
Finally, Clinton came across in the Democratic primary—at least in its early stages—as the candidate of incremental change and a protector of President Obama’s legacy. That helped to endear her to (especially older) minority voters and defeat Sanders in states with high concentrations of voters of color. But it angered many younger voters of all races who, even though they may like the president personally, often have found the Obama administration too tepid in its approach to tackling major issues.
Despite all this, it’s worth noting that millennials will likely still vote for Clinton over Trump—many of them enthusiastically. Clinton still leads the Republican candidate by as little as 5 and as much as 32 points, depending on the poll.
And a certain percentage of conservative millennials, especially white males, will gravitate to Trump no matter what. Those who frequent such misogynistic online message boards as Reddit’s Red Pill community and who made a star of the chauvinist young firebrand and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos will never vote for Clinton in any case—nor would it be wise for the Democratic Party to court them at the expense of its core values.
But the percentage of millennials flocking to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein should be worrisome to Democrats. Trump’s recent polling success isn’t so much driven by his own popularity (which remains comparatively low) as by voters’ nearly equal distaste for Clinton. That conservatives dislike Clinton is expected and understandable. But when a usually progressive voting bloc like millennials wavers, that spells trouble at the ballot box for Democrats.
A large number of “Obama Surge” voters, in the terminology of Steve Phillips in his bestselling book Brown is the New White, who are progressive and should be reliably in Clinton’s camp, remain unenthusiastic and unconvinced that Clinton will be an effective and forceful enough agent of change on the issues they care about most. Some of them have drifted to Stein or Johnson, and some may not vote.
Most millennial voters call Donald Trump a racist bigot, but that alone may not be enough earn their votes. Current polling shows that Clinton’s strongest argument to young voters is the threat of a Trump presidency, but in the end that may not be enough to reduce the number of protest votes and non-votes that threaten to put Trump in the White House.
Clinton’s push this week to refocus her campaign on the needs of younger Americans, including on health care, wages, and tuition, may help (though, curiously, climate change was mostly ignored, which may be a mistaken given young voters’ strong concerns about it).
But absent a sustained narrative through Election Day, it may be little more than a blip on young voters’ radar screens. It would help if Clinton demonstrated convincingly to millennials that she will not only improve the lives of younger Americans, but that she will make meaningful changes on a number of issues that impassioned the supporters of Senator Sanders, including Wall Street regulations, campaign-finance changes, and tackling economic and social inequities. That would help Clinton convince disaffected millennial voters that she represents not just an alternative to Trump, but a real departure from the political status quo.