The Fox, the Hedgehog, and the Millennials

President Obama’s student-debt proposal — and the reaction to it — reveal how Democrats and Republicans are courting young people.

US President Barack Obama speaks before signing a memorandum on reducing the burden of student loans on June 9, 2014 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. 
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

It was telling that when Pres­id­ent Obama un­veiled his latest pro­pos­al to re­strain stu­dent debt earli­er this week, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans ini­tially fired back not with a cri­ti­cism of the plan it­self but with a re­lease that cata­logued an ar­ray of grim stat­ist­ics on young people’s ex­per­i­ences in the eco­nomy. The ex­change cap­tured the con­trast between the ap­proaches Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are us­ing to court the massive mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, whose elect­or­al in­flu­ence is stead­ily ex­pand­ing.

Obama’s new ef­fort to cap stu­dent-loan debts il­lu­min­ated a Demo­crat­ic strategy of pur­su­ing the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion by of­fer­ing them pro­grams and policies that align with their views. The Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an re­sponse shows a GOP that is court­ing mil­len­ni­als around a broad­er ar­gu­ment centered on the eco­nom­ic struggles many of them are fa­cing.

It’s the polit­ic­al equi­val­ent of philo­soph­er Isai­ah Ber­lin’s fam­ous dis­tinc­tion between the fox and the hedge­hog. Like the fox, Demo­crats say mil­len­ni­als agree with them on many things. Like the hedge­hog, Re­pub­lic­ans say Demo­crats are fail­ing mil­len­ni­als on the one big thing that mat­ters most: provid­ing them eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity.

So far, Demo­crats have got­ten the bet­ter of the ar­gu­ment. As the first mil­len­ni­als have moved in­to the elect­or­ate since 2000 (the gen­er­a­tion is best de­scribed as the 90 mil­lion-plus young people born from 1981 through 2002), Demo­crats have en­joyed a con­sist­ent ad­vant­age with young­er voters. In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of voters un­der 30. His ad­vant­age slipped in 2012, but he still car­ried three-fifths of them.

Look­ing for­ward, though, the gen­er­a­tion seems more con­flic­ted. Ana­lysts in both parties agree that mil­len­ni­als’ eco­nom­ic struggles have pre­ven­ted Demo­crats from so­lid­i­fy­ing their sup­port as much as ap­peared pos­sible after Obama’s first vic­tory.

The depth of their eco­nom­ic dis­con­tent rang through a re­cent poll con­duc­ted as part of a series of joint Na­tion­al Journ­al/At­lantic mil­len­ni­al town halls un­der­writ­ten by Mi­crosoft.

In the sur­vey, only a little more than one-third of mil­len­ni­als de­scribed cur­rent eco­nom­ic con­di­tions as either very good (8 per­cent) or even some­what good (27 per­cent). Few­er than one-fourth thought the eco­nomy was bet­ter than a year ago. Nor was there much op­tim­ism about the months ahead: In the poll, only 27 per­cent thought the eco­nomy would be bet­ter one year from now.

On all of these ques­tions, young whites without a col­lege de­gree were es­pe­cially pess­im­ist­ic. But the lar­ger story was the con­sist­ency of this eco­nom­ic dis­con­tent across the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, even among groups that oth­er­wise have been the most sup­port­ive of Obama and Demo­crats. The share of non­white mil­len­ni­als who said the eco­nomy was good today or likely to im­prove over the next year was not mean­ing­fully lar­ger than the share of whites; wo­men were no more op­tim­ist­ic than men.

The March 14-18 sur­vey by the IC2 In­sti­tute at the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin) was con­duc­ted on­line, so the res­ults may not be as stat­ist­ic­ally pre­cise as those from a ran­dom-di­git-dial tele­phone poll. But they’re con­sist­ent with oth­er polling — polling that paints a dis­tinctly gloomy pic­ture of mil­len­ni­als’ moods.

An­oth­er re­cent on­line poll of this group, this one con­duc­ted by Paul Harstad, a poll­ster for Obama in 2008, crys­tal­lized this dis­con­tent in­to a single an­swer when it asked re­spond­ents wheth­er they agreed that “my em­ploy­ment or edu­ca­tion op­por­tun­it­ies are a lot less than I thought they’d be.” Ex­actly three-fifths of mil­len­ni­als said yes.

All of that maps the op­por­tun­ity for the GOP’s hedge­hog ar­gu­ment that Obama and the Demo­crats have failed mil­len­ni­als on the one thing that mat­ters most. But the IC2, Harstad, and oth­er re­cent sur­veys all show the po­ten­tial power of the fox case from Demo­crats. Both the IC2 and Harstad sur­veys, for in­stance, in­dic­ate sig­ni­fic­ant mil­len­ni­al re­ceptiv­ity to Demo­crat­ic ar­gu­ments about in­equal­ity; fully two-thirds in the IC2 poll agreed that it is dif­fi­cult for av­er­age people to get ahead today.

Demo­crats also en­joy a con­sist­ent ad­vant­age with mil­len­ni­als on most cul­tur­al is­sues, as an ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey last week re­minded. No Re­pub­lic­an 2016 con­tender is likely to fully sup­port gay mar­riage, but in the poll a head-turn­ing 77 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans un­der 30 said they backed it. And even as Re­pub­lic­ans erup­ted in op­pos­i­tion last week to Obama’s pro­pos­al to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from power plants, three-fourths of mil­len­ni­als in the same poll said they con­sidered cli­mate change a ser­i­ous prob­lem.

The most con­tested gen­er­a­tion­al ground may be the role of gov­ern­ment. Some sur­veys, like Harstad’s, show mil­len­ni­als more open than their eld­ers to gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism; but oth­er polls show them un­der­stand­ably un­con­vinced that any big in­sti­tu­tions — in­clud­ing gov­ern­ment and busi­ness — have worked very well for them. Kristen Solt­is An­der­son, a young GOP poll­ster who has ex­tens­ively stud­ied mil­len­ni­als, says the real duel un­der­way is between Demo­crats of­fer­ing pro­grams such as stu­dent-debt re­lief or a high­er min­im­um wage that ad­dress “the acute, im­me­di­ate pain” mil­len­ni­als face, and Re­pub­lic­ans try­ing in­stead to con­vince them “we’ve got to start over and re­think our ap­proach to these big sys­tems, wheth­er it’s high­er edu­ca­tion or health care.”

That de­bate isn’t settled, but An­der­son ac­know­ledges that Re­pub­lic­ans face a tough bur­den of proof “with a gen­er­a­tion that has nev­er really had a reas­on to trust [us]” after com­ing of age polit­ic­ally dur­ing George W. Bush’s con­ten­tious pres­id­ency. The Re­pub­lic­an hedge­hogs are dig­ging away, but must still bur­row past a thick tangle of ex­per­i­ences and at­ti­tudes be­fore reach­ing a mil­len­ni­al break­through.

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