Former rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appeared together at the University of New Hampshire Wednesday, promoting the Democratic presidential nominee’s education policies and urging young voters to give her a chance.
“Is everybody here ready to transform America?” Sanders asked. “You’ve come to the right place.”
“There is no group of Americans that have more at stake in this election than young Americans,” Clinton said.
It is a message engineered to appeal to millennials, but it has so far failed to ignite a spark among young voters dissatisfied with both Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
As more millennials become eligible to vote, the demographic will soon exceed baby boomers as the largest block of voting-age Americans. Getting them to the polls in numbers comparable to other age groups has been a persistent challenge for political campaigns, though.
The 18-to-34-year-old demographic is one of several with whom Clinton is now struggling to drum up enthusiasm. Her victory in November is dependent on recreating much of the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama, including young adults, African-Americans, and Latinos.
Clinton has stepped up her outreach to millennials in recent weeks. In addition to campaigning with youth-friendly surrogates like Sanders, Clinton gave a speech last week aimed specifically at giving millennials a reason to vote for her.
Sanders did better with young voters during the primaries than even Obama did against Clinton in 2008, according to Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Whether he can translate his influence over them into votes for Clinton remains to be seen, but there is reason for concern for Democrats.
Clinton is clearly the preferred candidate of this age group, but her lead is dwarfed by the 34 points that Obama defeated John McCain by with 18-to-29-year-olds in 2008. She also suffers a significant drop in support among young voters when Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein are included in polls.
Clinton’s advantage among young voters has varied in recent polls, with one giving her a bigger lead than the 23-point edge Obama held over Mitt Romney in 2012 and another putting her barely outside the margin of error over Trump.
In the latest Public Policy Polling survey conducted after Monday’s debate, Clinton is up 61 percent to 27 percent head-to-head with Trump among 18-to-29-year-olds. Her support drops to 52 percent in a four-way race, although she still leads Trump by 32 points.
However, a Bloomberg Politics poll before the debate found Clinton ahead 50 percent to 40 percent against Trump with 18-to-34-year-olds, with her lead slipping to just 4 points in a four-way matchup.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted earlier this month showed even starker contrast when third party candidates were included. Head-to-head, Clinton maintained a 21-point lead over Trump. In a four-way race, Clinton’s support fell from 54 to 31 percent, Trump got only 26 percent, and Johnson came in second with 29.
“Millennials are under a tremendous amount of stress, and they're despondent about their probable future,” said Miles Howard, author of “The Early Voters: Millennials, In Their Own Words, On the Eve of an Historic Election.” “The issues that keep millennials awake at night will require ambitious and visionary solutions.”
Their concerns about the future, climate change, and their economic situation leave them gravitating toward candidates who are calling for fundamental change in the U.S. Clinton’s tendency toward pragmatism has not overcome their cynicism about the political status quo.
“Politicians who propose making that shift, whether it's Bernie Sanders saying we should be more like Scandinavia, or Gary Johnson waxing poetic about a Libertarian utopia, will gain not only the support of many millennials, but the enthusiasm that moderate politicians like Hillary Clinton have been trying to spark,” said Howard, who interviewed more than 200 young adults for his book.
“The way to fight millennial pessimism is by offering them something positive to believe in,” he said.
According to Skelley, many young voters, like voters of other age groups, find Clinton overly political and inauthentic. Sanders offered “sincerity and idealism” that made him seem fresh and different despite his age.
“Part of me is sort of cynical and says they want the impossible, which is a candidate who doesn’t have any bumps or bruises,” Skelley said. “I think there’s probably a desire for fresh blood, new ideas.”
A Gallup poll released Monday found that Clinton is overwhelmingly seen by millennial voters as the candidate better able to handle nearly every issue than Trump. On some subjects, including social issues and minority rights, she is preferred by a margin of more than 50 points.
Her lead is smaller on economic issues like the deficit and employment, and the two candidates are tied on taxes. The only issue polled where Trump outperformed Clinton was government regulation of Wall Street and banks, despite his calls to roll back regulation of Wall Street and banks.
Many younger voters expected Monday’s presidential debate to impact their decisions, with 39 percent saying it would be an important factor, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey last week.
That may be good news for Clinton, who has emerged as the winner of the debate in all scientific polls on the outcome so far.
Professors Charlton McIlwain of New York University and Philip Dalton of Hofstra University conducted a focus group during the debate of 54 students under 25, measuring their approval of each candidate as they spoke. Clinton’s answers often registered significantly better than Trump, according to the Washington Post.
Howard is skeptical that Clinton’s debate dominance will win over reluctant millennials.
“There was nothing about the performance that suggested Clinton might be amenable to bolder policy ideas, in recognizance of how squeezed and hopeless so many Americans feel right now, including millennials,” he said.
Sanders is one of several surrogates more popular with young voters than Clinton herself that the campaign is deploying to attract millennials. Barack and Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are also hitting the campaign trail for Clinton.
“Barack & Michelle & Joe & Bernie & Elizabeth & You?” Clinton tweeted Thursday with a link to the DNC’s voter registration site.
The decision to title the accompanying video, which was also posted on the campaign's YouTube page, "Squad Goals" has generated some mockery on social media.
“He can’t just tell them to vote for her,” Skelley said of Sanders stumping for Clinton, “but I think seeing them interact positively works well.”
The more Clinton embraces these figures, though, the more they start to look like the Democratic Party establishment that young voters have scorned.
“I've heard more than a few young adults complain about Sanders and Warren ‘selling out’ to the establishment,” Howard said, “and while I would imagine most millennials don't share that sentiment entirely, the idea is still prevalent enough that it could siphon away enough millennial support to hand the election to Trump.”
Ultimately, it’s the message that matters, not the messenger.
“Clinton needs to start talking more about her platform, what she stands for, and what she'll do if Americans choose her as the next president,” Howard said.
While some recent polls have Clinton’s lead slipping among millennials, Trump’s campaign message that reaches back longingly into the past limits his appeal to young voters who seek economic, racial, and gender equality.
He has not abandoned the possibility of winning them over, purchasing a national Snapchat geofilter on the day of the debate to attack Clinton.
“I can't see him driving millennials to the polls in droves because the vision of America that he's offering is exactly the opposite of what most millennials I've interviewed seem to want,” Howard said.
In the Hofstra debate focus group, approval of Trump plummeted when he talked about Clinton’s “look,” tax cuts for the wealthy, and support for stop-and-frisk policies.
“Trump just has very little appeal to that age group,” Skelley said.
Many experts have predicted that support for Johnson and Stein will erode as the election approaches, as is typically the pattern with third party candidates. The record-high negative opinions of Clinton and Trump have cast this election into uncharted territory, though, and there may be a greater desire to lodge a protest vote.
“I do think that young voters are the most likely to not cast a ballot for one of the two major candidates,” Skelley said. Perhaps equally concerning for Clinton, some picking Johnson and Stein now might just not vote at all in November.
“If young voters don’t show up at a rate near where they have been in recent elections, Trump is obviously the beneficiary of that It could conceivably cost her the election if she’s not careful,” he said.
Howard said expecting the young electorate to behave like past generations is a mistake.
“I think it's incredibly foolish for either of the two parties to assume that millennials will ‘come to their senses’ and vote Clinton or Trump,” he said.
These are people who have only voted in one or two elections before and do not have decades of loyalty to a political party, and nothing they have seen in this campaign season has endeared them to Democrats or Republicans.
“When you consider how disillusioned so many millennials are currently feeling about the efficacy of a two party system, you have to ask, why should millennials toe the line of a party that they don't feel at represented by?” Howard said.
He warned that Clinton’s pitch to millennials may fail unless she puts forth an aggressive policy agenda that impacts them directly and addresses their fears about the future.
“Clinton is not going to win back this receding support with millennial advertisements or Snapchat,” he said.