Why Clinton Has a Millennial Problem

The younger they get, the less supportive voters are for her.

Chelsea Clinton answers questions from students at York College in York, Pa., during a campaign stop for her mother, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Wednesday, April 2, 2008.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Colin Diersing
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Colin Diersing
Sept. 15, 2016, 8 p.m.

Bernie Sanders promised them a revolution. Now Hillary Clinton has to convince them to settle.

America’s youngest voters helped propel Sanders to a surprisingly strong showing in the Democratic primaries. Now, as Clinton faces Donald Trump, recent polling indicates she is struggling to win them over at the level of Sanders or President Obama, and it suggests the problem is concentrated among the very youngest voters, who could flee for a third-party candidate.

In a new survey of Millennial likely voters released Thursday by liberal group NextGen Climate, in collaboration with Global Strategy Group, support for Clinton was only 5 points lower than support for Barack Obama among those 25 to 34 years old. But it was far lower in comparison with 18-24-year-olds. Her favorability rating among the youngest group was just 38 percent, compared to 45 percent with those 24 to 29, and 50 percent with those 30 to 34.

The poll is consistent with analysis of Survey Monkey data published this week on Five Thirty Eight, which showed Clinton underperforming Obama’s approval rating by 18 points among 18-24-year-olds, while more or less matching it with every other age group, including older millennials.

“As you get younger, the problems for her get more pronounced, in terms of reaching her full potential and performing relative to partisanship,” said Andrew Baumann, a Global Strategy Group pollster who oversaw the survey. “Views toward President Obama, Senator Sanders, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party—all those things are consistent across [Millennial] age groups. Views toward Secretary Clinton are lower as they get younger.”

While their slightly older counterparts likely remember Clinton as a popular secretary of State who worked closely with a president they deeply admire, the youngest voters in this election are more likely to have defined their views of Clinton in the context of this hard-fought campaign, in which her trustworthiness and progressive bonafides have come under fire.

“Their view toward Secretary Clinton is pretty much entirely based on what they’ve gone through in this campaign,” Baumann said. “They really liked Senator Sanders, and he spent a year telling them Hillary Clinton was a tool of the oligarchs, for the Iraq war, all these bad things.”

In a separate interview, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said these voters are further removed from the strong economy of Bill Clinton’s presidency and more likely to feel restless about the economic and political system with which they connect Clinton.

“The older millennials have parents who speak quite fondly of the Clinton years,” Lake said. “The younger millennials have parents who don’t tend to have as much recognition of how good the economy was during the ‘90s.

While the older end of the generation rose up through a tough economy and has made it, Lake added, the younger ones “are the baristas at Starbucks, haven’t been able to get a job, are very heavily indebted, and are back home on the couch during the recession, none of which made them happy.”

The youngest voters also don’t have as much experience in party politics. They haven’t voted for either party many times and, strategists said, that might leave them open to considering other options more readily.

“Folks who are late 20s, early-to-mid-30s, those are the hope-and-change Millennials. They remembered 2008 because they got registered and probably got registered as Democrats. They’ve developed a little bit longer-term loyalty to the Democratic Party label and traditional partisan divides,” said Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, author of The Selfie Vote. “If you’re younger you don’t necessarily have a history of casting votes in national elections, maybe you haven’t even registered with a party.”

Several pollsters pointed out they are also less likely to remember the 2000 election, when third-party voting was widely seen as having thrown the election to George Bush. Greg Speed, president of America Votes, said he thinks these voters need to be reminded of the cost of voting third party.

“Not only is the Clinton presidency not their experience, the 2000 election is also not part of their political experience. They see voting for a Gary Johnson or a Jill Stein as more of a free pass than it really is,” Speed said. “We need to make clear that the only way to defeat Trump is to vote for Clinton.”

Of Johnson, Lake said, “Older voters will say ‘He’s the pot candidate.’ Younger Millennials will say, ‘No, he’s a reform candidate.’”

All of this has some Democratic strategists questioning how the Clinton campaign has handled its outreach to young voters so far, and worried that they could face problems without a plan to win back the ones currently supporting third-parties. Painting a negative image of Trump might not be enough, they point out, with a cohort of voters particularly willing to pass Clinton over for Johnson or Stein.

“It’s imperative here for us to be able to communicate and double down and win these voters and bring these voters along, because there is no Democrat winning coalition without them,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said.

Ben Tulchin, who polled for Sanders in the primary, said Clinton should spend more time talking about the college affordability plan she introduced after the primary, saying, “She’s got to have more reputation, more conviction to it.”

No matter her outreach, Belcher said there should be no expectation for Clinton to match Obama’s support with young voters.

“It’s unfair for Hillary or really almost any Democrat to come on the back end of that love affair to think the same sort of energy and love would be there for them,” Belcher said. “They fell in love with Barack Obama and now their lover is leaving.”

Bauman took a different view, saying he would have expected clearer support for Clinton at this point.

“I would have been surprised Secretary Clinton hadn’t been able to bring them around and consolidate them as much as I thought they would, but it doesn’t surprise me without the effort that they don’t come around,” Bauman said.

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