“We needed to be in the low 60s with young people, and at the end of the day, we were in the high 50s,” Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told a conference held at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government weeks after the election. “That’s part of why we lost.”
As with Clinton’s under-performance in communities of color, her campaign’s lackluster youth turnout speaks to a broader problem of voter enthusiasm. These two groups were surely not going to flip to Donald Trump, but there was a sizable portion who simply stayed home or voted third party. Why was this? And what can be done to prevent this depressed turnout in 2018 and 2020?
It’s important to note that young voters are increasingly more left-wing than their counterparts a generation ago — on social and political issues as well as ideology. In addition to their overwhelming embrace of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, young people are more and more rejecting capitalist politics — with one January 2017 poll showing 43 percent of voters under 30 favorable toward socialism vs. only 26 percent unfavorable. (The generational trend is glaring, with just 23 percent of those 65 or older favorable toward socialism.) In an April poll by Harvard, a majority of young people responded that they do not “support capitalism.”
This generational shift was on stark display during one post-election CNN town hall when an NYU student cited the Harvard poll on millennials’ loss of trust in capitalism and asked Rep. Nancy Pelosi about the party moving left “to a more populist message” on economic issues. The Minority Leader bolted out of her seat and insisted, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is” before letting out a chuckle. The combination of knee-jerk dismissal and “just the way it is” cynicism perfectly distilled the problem the party has selling itself to today’s youth.
At the core of this disconnect is what, at first, appears to be a paradox: young voters are getting more left-wing but also less likely to identify as Democrats. According to a recent Brookings survey, only 37 percent of youth in 2016 identified as Democrats — down from 45 percent in 2008. But the percent who identified as “liberal” in 2016 was 37 percent, up from 32 percent in 2008. So how is it, young voters are moving leftward but identify less with the nominally “left” major party?
This tension speaks to the broader “anti-establishment” mood across generations and Democrats’ inability to tap into this sentiment. Most people, especially the young, feel the “establishment” is letting them down and are looking for an alternative that will challenge it as such, rather than offer slow, piecemeal reforms. (In the 2016 general election, 8 percent of voters under age 30 cast ballots for a third-party presidential candidate and, as NPR reported, “in some battleground states that number was much, much higher.”) Perhaps the extent of the distrust is unfair — after all, it is true Clinton did have some relatively progressive policy reforms — but the framing and sales pitch were, to most youth, “more of the same.”
There’s no doubt the angst is real and justified, notably among college students and those who aspire to college. The average cost of college went up 1,200 percent since 1978, and the totality of student debt in the U.S. went up 400 percent from 2003 to 2013. Massive military boondoggles like the F-35 jet fighter program — fought for and supported by Democrats — cost more than the total student debt in the country ($1.45 trillion vs. $1.3 trillion). All but four Democrats in the Senate voted for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 that had a Pentagon budget increase greater than the total cost of all the state college tuitions for every student in the country ($80 billion vs. $70 billion). Yet we’ve saddled an entire generation with crippling debt for the privilege of learning. Something about the current state of the social contract is intuitively wrong and requires urgent and radical overhaul.
Bernie Sanders understood this reality-based sentiment and — mostly propelled by millennials — turned what conventional wisdom had pegged as an obscure, 2-percent campaign into a photo finish with the establishment’s preferred candidate. Once the nomination was settled, much of this grassroots energy dissipated as the Clinton campaign declined to adopt positions like single-payer health care and free public college that resonated with young voters. While Clinton’s policies themselves were often progressive compared to the status quo, they were mostly presented in piecemeal wonkese, while bold moral demands were ignored in favor of a complex web of targeted “solutions.” The primary lesson of Sanders’ campaign — that presenting a clear moral vision rather than McKinsey & Co. policy papers could galvanize youth support — was missed entirely, and the Clinton campaign suffered for it.
Clinton herself seems to have recognized that lesson from 2016, writing in her book What Happened:
Bernie proved again that it’s important to set lofty goals that people can organize around and dream about, even if it takes generations to achieve them…. Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable…. I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued…. The conclusion I reach from this is that Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad based benefits for the whole country.
Troublingly, many in the party want to ignore this advice and double down on the old strategy of dismissing the youth-driven Sanders movement. A network of aggressive Clinton loyalists is expending much energy punching left and mocking progressive policies as naive delusion. Of what use is it for the president of the Center for American Progress to go after young activists like National Women’s March co-organizer Linda Sarsour on Twitter for daring to criticize party leadership? There’s an undeniable current with Clinton surrogates that their time is better spent attacking Sanders supporters rather than trying to welcome them.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As several of the 2020 hopefuls — and many pundits — know, the future of the party rests with the Sanders platform and the Sanders base (regardless of his future role). It rests with a progressive policy agenda that can rally and excite rather than scold and extort. None of this is to suggest that Hillary Clinton did not have many adamant supporters — she certainly did, and she worked hard to earn them. But, in the aggregate, Clinton did not motivate and bring out demographics the party ought to have at the scale that was needed. The most glaring shortfall in this capacity was among the young, who increasingly want politics to be for something profoundly positive rather than just against Republicans; who want a movement, not a chore.