Presidential campaigns often come down to a few closely fought demographics like “soccer moms” or “NASCAR dads.” This year, in what seems likely to prove to be the most unpredictable election of our lifetime, one of the key battleground demographics is also surprising: Adults 18-24.
It’s not that Donald Trump has a realistic expectation of trouncing Hillary Clinton among the youngest Millennials. But there’s a danger that they’ll stay home en masse, write in a protest vote for a candidate like Bernie Sanders, or vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. In a close election, this could tip states—like Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado—to Trump, and with them, the Presidency.
In a mid-September Quinnipiac University poll, Clinton drew just 31% of the vote among the broader demographic of young adults 18-34, while Johnson received 29%, Trump 26%, and Stein 15%. While there are signs that, since then, Clinton might be consolidating her Millennial support in the wake of her strong performance in the first Presidential debate, that’s still a huge red flag. Why isn’t Clinton drawing a huge majority of young Millennial voters when Bernie Sanders has endorsed and campaigned for her, her campaign has issued detailed plans for making college more affordable, she’s well-aligned with them on social issues, and Trump is about as popular with them as a smartphone virus?
Jeff Stein at Vox has some solid hypotheses. He notes that Adults 18-24 weren’t part of the coalition that elected Obama in 2008, and as children, they were less aware of the struggles of George W. Bush’s presidency. In their adult lifetime, they’ve seen both parties contribute to gridlock, so they’re more open to a third-party solution. Mother Jones notes that these defectors to third parties tend to be Caucasian, and that the “Obama coalition” of young people of color is sticking with Hillary Clinton, though whether they’ll come out to vote at the same rate as in 2008 and 2012 is an open question. And the Daily Beast notes that young Millennials are less afraid of other countries and cultures, and also too young to have grown up seeing the struggles of socialist or autocratic regimes, or hearing firsthand about them from parents. All of these factors make young Millennials more likely to consider “outside-of-the-box” candidates.
No matter who wins on Nov. 8, it will almost certainly be a person born at the very beginning of the baby boom, which will create unique challenges in communicating with young Millennials—and an opportunity for the opposition party in 2020 and beyond. It’s quite possible that the 46th President will be a Millennial or a very young (or youthful-looking) Gen Xer, and the oldest part of Gen X will be entirely skipped. In 1992, the Presidency passed from The Greatest Generation directly to Baby Boomers, skipping the Silent Generation (people born between 1925 and 1945). After four Baby Boomer Presidents, the same might happen again, benefitting a candidate like Eric Garcetti, Julian Castro, Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio.
Our next Boomer president—and those who aim to succeed him or her—will need to develop new methods of communicating with young Millennials and Gen Z (hopefully not 3 a.m. tweetstorms). They must build ongoing voter intelligence systems to understand the issues of importance among Persons 14-34, ideate on policy solutions to those issues, test the messaging of those solutions, and rally the demographic to take action when needed. Obama started doing this in 2008, and 2016 appears to be a step backward from his efforts, but in 2020, such an intelligence system could flip control of the White House. Until then, the ballots that teens cast—or don’t cast—on Nov. 8might end up deciding who occupies it for the next four years.