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Think Millennials Will Abandon Hillary? Don't Bet on It

05/19/2015 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS

We should not be surprised when Beltway reporters stop the presses to reveal that millennials might abandon Hillary Clinton.

We also shouldn't believe it.

Washington journalists and lobbyists alike have a vested interest in portraying millennial voters as the ultimate political wildcard. Reporters desperate for Internet clicks make presidential elections seem unpredictable and exciting by suggesting America's largest generation is there for the taking by either political party. At the same time, influence peddlers who like to play both sides advance their status quo policy goals by painting millennials as a centrist generation. As a result, reporters and think tanks latch onto ambiguous surveys and studies to sell Washington on a narrative of the independent millennials.

Practically since the day after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008--largely on the strength of millennial voters--Beltway pundits claimed that those same millennials had become disillusioned with Obama and the Democratic Party, and were up for grabs in American elections.

In the run-up to 2012, poll results like this one from the Harvard Institute of Politics and this one from the Pew Research Center prompted a flurry of news items and analysis signaling a collapse of support for the president among millennials, and a blinking-red danger sign to his prospects for reelection. But millennials' actual voting patterns suggested otherwise. While Obama's margin among 18-to-29-year-old voters did decrease slightly from the whopping 66-32 advantage he enjoyed over John McCain in 2008, he still beat Romney among millennials by a commanding 60-37 percent four years later.

Soon, however, the irresistible meme of millennials' evaporating support for Obama returned. In 2014, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank attempted to explain "Why millennials have abandoned Obama," suggesting the result could be "fatal" for the Affordable Care Act and, with it, Obama's entire presidency. Writing a week before the March 31 Obamacare enrollment deadline in 2014, CNN columnist Julian Zelizer analyzed "Why Obama is losing millennials." Zelizer rested his entire premise on the lack of millennial signups for Obamacare, ignoring young people's tendency to procrastinate with everything. After millennials did in fact sign up at the last minute in the expected proportions--exactly as they had done in Massachusetts in 2007 under the similar "RomneyCare" health reform plan--Zelizer failed to retract or correct his mistaken thesis.

A week before the 2014 midterms, the headline for another Harvard poll declared, "Likely Millennial Voters Up-for-Grabs in Upcoming Midterm Elections." The poll showed likely millennial voters favoring Republicans 51-47 percent. And while low turnout among millennial and minority voters doomed Democrats in 2014, the millennials who did turn out actually voted in favor of Democrats 54-43. This was consistent with millennials' 55-42 percent preference for Democrats in the 2010 midterms. Although these margins were certainly lower than Obama's advantage among millennials in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections, as well as Democrats' 60-38 edge in the 2006 midterms, this track record of actual voting behavior makes clear millennials are hardly "up for grabs."

The centrist think tank Third Way won the prize, however, for 2014's most self-serving millennial propaganda. Armed with survey data measuring millennial attitudes on today's top policy questions (spoiler: millennials are progressive on every single one), author Michelle Diggles went to great lengths to shoehorn the findings into a preordained conclusion--that freelancing millennials are a perpetual wildcard in American politics, and amazingly, the centrist policies of Third Way are the answer to both parties' prayers! Ron Fournier of National Journal dutifully transcribed the pronouncement under the banner, "Millennial Madness: What Happens If Young Voters Bolt Both Parties?"

In describing millennial attitudes on marriage equality, abortion, family structure, marijuana legalization, immigration, and foreign policy, the study practically spells out the modern Democratic Party platform. Yet it concludes, bizarrely, that "as millennials eschew partisan labels, they are much more likely to switch the party they support from election to election."

Huh?

Third Way's theory is that in today's world of unlimited consumer choice, millennials will reject the two-party system, and instead take an à la carte approach to politics. This sounds reasonable--clever even. But it collides with millennials' actual voting behavior, and it is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of how generational change drives political realignments in America.

The study declares, "millennial voters are unlikely to align with a political party that expects blind faith in large institutions--either governmental or nongovernmental." The flaw inherent in this interpretation, though, is the assumption that millennial voters will continue to react passively to a static political environment constructed by their Boomer parents.

It is true that millennials' trust in large institutions like Congress, the courts, and the police remains historically low. But when members of older generations like the Boomers learn that millennials are less trustful of big institutions--including political parties--they tend to interpret the meaning through their own generational prism. Thus, the individualistic and sanctifying Boomers perceive millennials' rejection of institutions today as Boomers saw their own experiences in the 1960s and 70s. But millennials are a civic generation, similar to their GI grandparents. A hallmark of civic generations is that when they lose faith in social institutions, they seize the reins of leadership and rebuild institutions to suit their own needs and worldview.

This explains why millennials--who have borne the brunt of economic hardship in the Great Recession and entered adulthood with sunken levels of social trust--are still more optimistic and civically engaged than older generations. Recent Pew surveys illustrate that millennials are not only more confident than their parents about their own financial futures, they're also more optimistic that their children will be better off still. Millennials are currently the most bullish generation on America's future; 40 years ago, it was the other way around--young Boomers were considerably less optimistic about the direction of the country than older generations. In addition, millennials are more likely than their elders to participate in volunteer service activities, and they express greater support for an active government role in guaranteeing necessities for citizens like housing, health insurance, education, and a living wage.

Today, Hillary Clinton is practically a shoo-in to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. In a general election matchup against Jeb Bush (or whichever Republican is nominated), she will enjoy a decided demographic advantage among millennials, people of color, and unmarried women--all growing segments of the electorate. Nonwhites, who vote consistently Democratic and went 80 percent for Obama in 2008 and 2012, will increase by 2 percentage points as a share of the electorate, accounting for 30 percent of all voters in 2016. Likewise, about 4 million new millennials are joining the electorate every year, and by 2016 experts estimate they will comprise about 36 percent of eligible voters and a third of actual voters. By 2020--the first presidential election in which all millennials will be 18 or older--the millennial generation will be 103 million strong. Political demographer Ruy Teixeira calculates that about 90 million of them will be eligible to vote, comprising nearly 40 percent of America's eligible voter pool. Meanwhile, older white voters, on whom the Republican Party now pins practically all its hope, constitute a shrinking slice of the electoral pie.

Oddly, these demographic realities might make it all the more tempting for reporters to give the 2016 election the veneer of drama by implying that millennials just aren't "ready for Hillary." After all, in the epic nomination battle in 2008, millennials clearly favored the younger, fresher Obama over Hillary. But that was then, and 2008 was an inter-family fight within the Democratic Party. This is now, and in 2016, the alternative will be a Republican.

Unlike her husband's strategy of triangulation in the 1990s, Hillary's approach thus far suggests she and her team realize that 20 years of demographic shifts in a progressive direction discredits the tired Beltway trope that "elections are won in the middle." Sure, the less thoughtful journalists and political hacks still talk about general elections for President of the United States like they're high school student council popularity contests. But smarter observers know that economic fundamentals and demographics largely determine the outcome, especially among an increasingly polarized electorate.

Surveys suggest partisan self-identification among American voters is declining; however, actual voting behavior indicates the opposite--swing voters have all but vanished, and straight ticket voting is increasingly the norm. Many voters simply prefer to see themselves as "independent" thinkers, while others are unhappy with their political party, sometimes even because they feel the party is not partisan enough. But so long as the Republican Party is beholden to the ultra-conservative white base it has cultivated since Richard Nixon employed his 'Southern Strategy' nearly 50 years ago, most millennials will likely find themselves voting straight ticket, too--for Democrats.

Hillary no doubt recognizes the increasing importance of political party, and the degree to which the millennial generation has moved the Democratic Party in a progressive direction since the 1990s. She has embraced progressive ideas like a constitutional amendment to regulate campaign finance, a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, a path to citizenship for DREAMers and their parents, drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants, and a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

Without question, millennials want to make wholesale changes to our civic institutions as well. Millennial experts Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais preview these reforms in their recent book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America. The Executive branch under Obama is more transparent and accessible than ever (but sorry, millennials--President Obama is officially not going to build a Death Star). The youngest Members of Congress now host Google hangouts to solicit constituent input on legislation. In business and government, bottom-up organizational structures powered by millennials are thriving, while top-down approaches seem like dinosaurs destined for extinction.

Millennials are learning, however, that we cannot achieve meaningful political reform in the United States until we significantly curb the corrupting influence of money in politics. This means overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's repugnant Citizens United decision from 2010, which has opened the floodgates for undisclosed and unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns under the guise of free speech. Whether millennials accomplish this lofty goal by gradually shifting the political balance of the Court, or by amending the U.S. Constitution itself, this will remain their greatest civic endeavor. If we succeed, many other reforms become possible. If we don't, even the Democratic Party will be forced to operate as little more than a money-laundering machine.

At any rate, supporting Hillary is a no-brainer for millennials. For all of their disappointment with a political system poisoned by secret campaign cash, millennials know that putting a Republican in the White House is hardly the way to reform our criminal justice system, address global climate change, install a more just immigration system, advance LGBT rights, or lessen the Supreme Court's corporate protectionism.

Of course millennials are not about to embrace the "traditional liberalism" of the New Deal, or view racial and ethnic struggles through the lens of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Those Democratic programs flowed from coalitions of voters long since disintegrated. But with fresh perspective, new technology and a bold sense of civic purpose, millennials are poised to reshape the party of Barack Obama--and Hillary Clinton--to our liking over the next several decades. In the process, we will reset the conversation on America's civic ethos on our own terms.

Note: This essay builds on a previous post which originally appeared on the millennial blog mikeandmorley.com hosted by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais.