Why Millennials Didn’t Come Out For Hillary
Back in May of 2016, I wrote a post laying out my doomsday scenario for Hillary Clinton: that young people would stay home on Election Day and throw the election to Donald Trump. I wrote:
There really is only one group of voters who are a significant question mark in 2016, at least in terms of turnout. This group is capable of throwing the election to Donald Trump, not because they will go and vote for the man, but because they won’t even bother voting at all.
Which is to say, the only way Trump can win in 2016 is if young people demobilize and decide to sit out this election.
Young Americans (those under 30 for our purposes) are one of the most crucial groups of voters for Democrats — insofar as they show up every four years to vote for President. In 2008, they went 66%-31% for Obama over John McCain. In 2012, Obama only received 60% of the youth vote, but that support was even more crucial than in 2008. How so? Obama actually lost the vote among voters over 30 in the key battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and even Pennsylvania. It’s no exaggeration to say that — barring a landslide — Hillary Clinton will need to rack up a healthy margin among young voters to win.
I didn’t get much right in 2016, but I did understand what Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and others could see from a mile away: a deficit in young voters would be very difficult to make up in other parts of the electorate.
The question is: why didn’t these young people show up?
Taegan Goddard over at Political Wire argued last week that it’s largely an economic issue: young people really have fallen behind in terms of income and wealth relative to other generations. But while I don’t necessarily disagree with this analysis, it’s not readily apparent that hurting economically caused young folks to ditch Hillary. 2012 was a much harder year for young people, and they still came out for Obama and resisted the urge to vote third party.
As I see it, this was an election where young people largely sat out for reasons mostly to do with the candidates, their messages, and their personalities. In short, the match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had some unique characteristics that I feel drove young voters away from Hillary.
Barack Obama was cool. Hillary Clinton was not. I worked with a guy who kept predicting Trump would beat Hillary, claiming the rationale was simple: “The cooler one always wins.” Looking back on the past 40 years of Presidential politics, I should have taken this contention more seriously, at least in the context of young voters. Young voters have a very high threshold for getting engaged, and candidates who are witty, charming, and confident speakers are able to connect with young voters on a deep level. Democrats got spoiled by Barack Obama, who was almost like a charming, cool friend of yours (if you were a Democrat) by the end of his two terms. Hillary’s team could have tried to make her “uncoolness” into a strength and just owned it, but instead, they went for a generic “fighter” image. It’s unfair, but when you’re not cool, young voters just won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.
Younger voters demand authenticity. The classic campaign of polished television ads, careful talking points, and group-tested messaging just doesn’t work on young voters. They sniff out phonies quickly and make sure everyone in their social media network knows about it. More than your policy positions or what values you hold, they want to know you’re not bullshitting them. It’s condescending, and they’ll withhold their vote at a moment’s notice if you violate this code. Bernie got a lot of support from young people—even those much closer to Rand Paul on the issues—because he came off as consistent, genuine, and made it clear that these were his words and his thoughts. Giving paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and then proclaiming you’re a friend of the working class is practically daring them to abandon you.
Young voters have every reason to disengage when things go negative. To quote the great Bart Simpson, “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” Younger voters are unusually attuned to how they will be perceived and don’t want to seen rewarding underserving politicians or their parties with their votes. Often this is seen as being lethargic or not understanding their “self-interest”, but the flipside is that we partisans will turn ourselves into illogical knots to convince ourselves that our party’s candidates are good and upstanding. That disgusts a wide array of young voters who have much higher standards for their elected officials and haven’t built a set of defined interests. As a result, when things went really negative, Hillary had much farther to drop than Trump, because those who disengaged were disproportionately young and Democratic-leaning.
All of this said, anyone looking to scapegoat young voters really needs to ask the much bigger question of how a plurality of older voters—who are supposed to be wise and experienced in such affairs—voted for the most unqualified and ill-suited candidate for President in modern history. That line of inquiry should be front and center when discussing who is responsible for the final result in 2016.