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. 
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Obama Commutes Another 98 Sentences
19 minutes ago

President Obama commuted the sentences of another 98 drug offenders on Thursday. Most of the convicts were charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs or possession with intent to distribute. Many of the sentences were commuted to expire next year, but some will run longer. Others are required to enroll in residential drug treatment as a condition of their release.

DOJ Busts More Than 50 for Call Center Scam
45 minutes ago

The Department of Justice announced today it's charged "61 individuals and entities for their alleged involvement in a transnational criminal organization that has victimized tens of thousands of persons in the United States through fraudulent schemes that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. In connection with the scheme, 20 individuals were arrested today in the United States and 32 individuals and five call centers in India were charged for their alleged involvement. An additional U.S.-based defendant is currently in the custody of immigration authorities."

Johnson on Ballot Everywhere, Followed by Stein, McMullin
2 hours ago
Is McMullin Building the GOP in Exile?
4 hours ago

Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate who may win his home state of Utah, is quietly planning to turn his candidacy into a broader movement for principled conservatism. He tells BuzzFeed he's "skeptical" that the Republican party can reform itself "within a generation" and that the party's internal "disease" can't be cured via "the existing infrastructure.” The ex-CIA employee and Capitol Hill staffer says, “I have seen and worked with a lot of very courageous people in my time [but] I have seen a remarkable display of cowardice over the last couple of months in our leaders.” McMullin's team has assembled organizations in the 11 states where he's on the ballot, and adviser Rick Wilson says "there’s actually a very vibrant market for our message in the urban northeast and in parts of the south."

Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
4 hours ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.