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What do millennials want?

What do millennials want?
© Greg Nash

Lost in the conversation of last year’s midterm election results was one important statistic: Younger generations (Gen X, Z and millennials) outvoted baby boomers and senior voters. This represents a critical and important shift in our electoral politics, but what does it mean for 2020?

In 2018, voters under 53 (the cut off for Generation X) cast 62.2 million votes, compared to 60.1 million votes cast by baby boomers and older generations. While every generation set records for turnout in a midterm election, millennials led the pack, roughly doubling participation numbers between 2014 and 2018.

What fueled this rapid level of engagement is worth exploring and cannot just be explained away as a reaction to the rise and eventual election of Donald Trump, although that is certainly part of the equation. 

For nearly 20 years, the Harvard Public Opinion Project has provided a critical glimpse into voting trends of young Americans and has published new data in advance of 2020. In addition to projecting even larger voter participation numbers for young voters, the IOP Youth Poll also found a building conflict between millennial voters and their parents’ generation. According to the poll, “by wide margins, younger Americans do not believe that the baby boomer generation, especially elected officials within that cohort, ‘care about people like them.’” Indeed, less than one in five millennials surveyed believe that baby boomer elected officials actually look out for their generation when it comes to making policy. 

In 2016, younger voters supported Secretary Clinton’s bid by 18 points, while voters over 65 backed then-candidate Trump by 8 points. Since taking office, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE has struggled to gain any traction with younger Americans, with seven in ten (70 percent) of them holding an unfavorable view of the incumbent.

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While November 2020 may seem like an eternity from now, President Trump is unlikely to improve much in regard to his standing with younger voters, especially with his recent doubling down on climate change denial, threats of widespread undocumented immigrant deportations, and a promised veto of gun background check legislation — all critical issues to Americans 35 and younger.

Happening much sooner, of course, are the two back-to-back DNC-sponsored debates in which 20 of the top-tier Democratic candidates will be vying for precious screen time and the elusive breakout moment. What will set that stage apart from previous debates is the presence of three millennials themselves (Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican MORE is 37, Congresswoman Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials MORE is 38 and Congressman Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Sights and sounds from Biden's UK visit MORE is also 38) and five other candidates under the age of 50 (Cory BookerCory BookerTeen who filmed Floyd murder awarded honorary Pulitzer Senate confirms first Muslim American federal judge Police reform negotiations enter crucial stretch MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroMore GOP-led states risk corporate backlash like Georgia's More than 200 Obama officials sign letter supporting Biden's stimulus plan OVERNIGHT ENERGY: McEachin signals interest in Biden administration environment role | Haaland, eyed for Interior, stresses need for Native American representation | Haaland backers ask Udall to step aside in bid for Interior post MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanJ.D. Vance emerges as wild card in Ohio GOP Senate primary 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 Biden faces dilemma on Trump steel tariffs MORE, and Andrew YangAndrew YangMary J. Blige endorses New York City mayoral candidate in new ad Ocasio-Cortez endorses Maya Wiley in NYC mayoral race NYC mayoral candidate hit with second allegation of sexual misconduct MORE).

What each of these eight candidates and their older peers say on that stage will be watched, examined and analyzed closely by younger voters, many of whom will be participating for the first time in the primary or caucus process.

Speaking about the millennials specifically, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently declared, “sometimes certain things are a certain way until they’re not, and I think we have a generation now that is very skeptical of the way things have worked really for our entire lives.” Buttigieg has successfully navigated the early primary waters, achieving an enviable position squarely behind Biden, Sanders and Warren. Look for Gabbard and Swalwell to make similar arguments in how they frame generational appeals as we get closer to the early caucus and primary states.

Interestingly enough, however, most young Democratic voters aren’t supporting their peers just yet in the primary horserace.

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In a new GenForward poll, a University of Chicago effort tracking millennial political views, both Biden and Sanders lead the candidate pack with 17 points each. From the results, “the survey shows that across all racial groups, young voters favor former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE and Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats Socially-distanced 'action figure' photo of G7 leaders goes viral MORE. But the rankings of these two candidates is not consistent across all groups: While African Americans and Asian Americans rank Biden ahead of Sanders, Latino and white voters do the opposite.”

In the same survey of young voters, “someone else” takes 30 points, a strong indication that the youth vote is still up for grabs by most estimates.

Kevin Walling (@kpwalling) is a Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News and Fox Business.