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 John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota 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 ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration Nashville radio host blocked by employer from airing his interview with Buttigieg MORE is 37, Congresswoman Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardPolitician targeted by Puerto Rican governor responds: 'This is an attack on all women' Puerto Ricans block major highway in protest of governor New CBS poll shows Biden with 7-point lead in New Hampshire MORE is 38 and Congressman Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Moulton campaign makes formal case to DNC to be added to debate stage Bullock makes CNN debate stage MORE is also 38) and five other candidates under the age of 50 (Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE, Julian CastroJulian CastroPolitician targeted by Puerto Rican governor responds: 'This is an attack on all women' Harris voices support for Puerto Rico protesters: 'I stand with them' Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters MORE, Beto O’Rourke, Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash MORE, and Andrew YangAndrew YangDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash 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 BidenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Booker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Panel: Has Joe Biden been wrong on everything for 40 years? MORE and Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission 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.