Democrats Are Doomed Unless They Start Listening to Millennials

Candidates may be tempted to court older white Trump voters, but that's exactly the wrong approach.

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Nov 17 2017, 5:00am

APhoto by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty

This is the year of the youth vote. From the stunning surge of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the UK elections to Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia, the power of young voters to influence political outcomes is increasingly clear. It is often absurd to speak in terms of “generational ethos,” but the cohort that voted so strongly for Labour in the UK and the Democratic Party in the US do have shared memories. Coming of age during a cataclysmic recession caused by the excesses of the One Percent, millennials have experienced a political system that prioritized assets over human beings. They’ve watched as failures of the elite class resulted in the further accumulation of wealth in the hands of the ruling class, even while pundits declared that the system worked.

The boomer generation, secure in the post-war welfare state, felt no compunctions pulling up the ladder. They voted for white supremacists devoted to the destruction of the social safety net while secure in the knowledge that their own healthcare would remain cheap—and indeed, Medicare has not been threatened by the Republican Party like Medicaid has. Yet despite the clear leftward lean of young people, caused in no small part by the Great Recession, pundits have frequently overlooked their electoral power, and too many Democrats still don’t know how to energize them.

Starting in 2004, American political parties began diving across age lines, meaning that low turnout among young voters increasingly spells doom for a Democratic candidate. For all the analysis below, I use two-party vote share of presidential elections (meaning excluding third-party voting) using American National Election Studies (ANES) data. That data points to three eras of age polarization in voters by age. Between 1952 and 1972, the average difference in Democratic performance in between those aged 18–34 and those 65-plus was 9 percentage points (Democrats won, on average, 51 percent of the vote among those 18-34 and 42 percent of the vote among those 65 or older). In the ‘60 and ‘64 elections, there were 13- and 17-point age gaps, respectively. In the ‘72 election, the gap was 12 points.

From 1976 to 2000 these gaps disappeared: The average Democratic difference in performance between 18–34 and 65-plus over this period was only 2 points. In the ‘80, ‘84 and ‘92 elections, Democrats actually performed worse with young voters than older voters.

But after the 2000 election, these gaps came back with a vengeance. Between 2004 and 2016, the average gap in Democratic vote share between old and young has averaged 15 points. In '08, Democrats won 65 percent of the vote among 18-to-34-year-olds, but only 45 percent of the vote among the 65-plus cohort. You can see what these trends look like in the chart below—the higher the number, the better Democrats performed with young voters:

But Republicans have quite clearly lost whatever youth appeal they once had. In last week’s elections, Democratic wave victories in both Virginia and New Jersey were driven by youth turnout. In Jersey, Governor-elect Phil Murphy won 18–29 year old voters by 48 points (compared to 36 points for Barack Obama in the state in ‘08). In Virginia, Northam—a moderate Democrat—won 18-29-year-olds by 39 points and youth turnout surged from 26 percent in 2013 to 34 percent in 2017.

Republicans might comfort themselves with the old mantra, “Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.” The problem is the data doesn't fit the cute aphorism: The most extensive research shows that partisan attitudes are formed early in life and remain sticky for an individual’s life. In other words, it’s not likely young voters will switch sides en masse.

Democrats may be aware of this trend, but the party as a whole doesn’t act like its fate hangs in the hands of young voters. There has been endless handwringing about the white working-class and Obama-to-Trump voters, but far less attention is paid to how to court millennials and get them to turn out—which could have won the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton just as surely as a better result among older Midwestern whites would have.



Far from investing in the electorate of the future, many Democratic pundits want to recreate the electorate of the past. If Democrats wanted to really court millennials, their stances on certain hot-button issues would shift.

To delve into some of those issues, I used the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies 2016 survey. The large sample allows me to analyze subgroups of millennials and compare them to older generations. For my purposes, I define millennial as an individual who was 18–34 during the survey.

To begin let’s look at a question that asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “White people in the US have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.” Respondents could answer on a five-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” with “neither” in the middle. Below I show the percent saying that they “strongly” or “somewhat” agree with the statement, white millennials are more liberal than their parents but less liberal than millennials of color, a divide that has been consistently observed in research:

Millennials are also less likely to support identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants. This demonstrates the same pattern of white millennials being more liberal than older whites, but less liberal than millennials of color:

Finally, millennials are much more supportive of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, specifically (via the survey language) those “who have held jobs and paid taxes for at least 3 years, and not been convicted of any felony crimes”:

Obviously, this should not be construed as evidence that white millennials are fully or universally committed to racial justice. Preliminary research suggests that reminding young whites of demographic change pushes them in a more conservative direction on some measures, which is also true of older whites. Spencer Piston, a political scientist who studies racial attitudes, told me, “The available survey data strongly suggests that racial prejudice is widespread among white millennials." As white supremacist YouTube videos channels have shown, many prominent young people harbor deeply racist views.

Electorally, the effects are obvious. White millennials were less likely to vote for Trump than older whites, a trend that holds true across education levels:

The implications of the increasingly powerful youth vote are clear, if Democrats want to embrace them. Though elections are often decided by turnout among young people, many Democratic strategists have spent their time concerned with winning back older whites. The tactics Democrats have been advised to pursue to attract Obama to Trump voters, such as criticizing “sanctuary cities”, ceding ground on immigration enforcement, and rejecting “multiculturalism,” won’t play well with young people. Millennial independents are more racially liberal than non-millennial independents. While moving to the center on race may have helped Democrats win "independent" voters in the past, the strategy will have diminishing returns.

The diversity of the millennial generation can be see in the young candidates running for office across the country. The down-ballot races in 2018 will build the next generation of political talent. Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator and executive director at Future Now Fund, argues that Democrats have often missed opportunities down-ballot. "For the first time, people see the potential in state races, but the seeds that are planted take time to sprout," he told me. "The focus has to be maintained in 2018, and in accountability after candidates are first elected."

“Young people are ready to take back our democracy, to build the future we’re going to live in. It’s time our politics and our politicians reflect that,” Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Michigan who transformed a public health department eviscerated by privatization, told me. He highlighted policies like “tuition relief, universal healthcare, environmental protection, and clean energy,” that he felt would mobilize young voters.

That sort of platform has been used by politicians who have successfully mobilized the youth vote. The potential of young voters is powerful, as Tammy Baldwin showed in 1998 when she organized University of Wisconsin-Madison students to win a narrow victory over the establishment’s choice, Dane County Executive Richard Phelps, in a tough Democratic primary. Her narrow victory was referred to as a “youthquake,” and in her subsequent bids she courted student newsletters, always made sure her campaign signs would fit in dorm windows, and made college affordability one of her central issues. (She is now a US senator.)

In 2006, Jon Tester courted young voters to win an upset in the Democratic primary for a US Senate seat in Montana. He frequently denounced the Iraq War and the Patriot Act while running a grassroots campaign in which he branded himself as a populist farmer. He was rewarded with a massive 13-point surge in youth turnout that delivered him a win in a general election decided by less than 4,000 votes.

More recently, Bernie Sanders took a page from the Tammy Baldwin playbook of using populist pocketbook policies to energize young voters. Enthusiasm seems to have carried over to Virginia, where campus turnout increased by 8 points from 2013, ushering in candidates like Jennifer Carroll Foy to the House of Delegates. Foy, one of the first black women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, ran on a platform of education, healthcare, and criminal justice reform. She told me that millennials are “are tired of heartless Republican policies that deny thousands of people healthcare, that prioritize corporate interests over hard-working families, that take away women’s healthcare, and that yank immigrant children away from their families.”

If Democrats can form a generation of voters who are energized and mobilized, the world—or at least a greater share of the government—is theirs. But without unless they inspire young voters, turnout, they will fail at the ballot box.

Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

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