By Terrance Woodbury
Most analysis of millennials conducted until now represents the previous generations’ attempts to understand us through observation. These analyses are limited to the same extent that I can observe and study women but will always have the limitation of not knowing a woman’s experiences Through focus groups and public opinion polling, I have attempted to observe millennials, but I add the advantage of contrasting what I observe through my own personal experiences and those of my peers.
Ever since Bernie Sanders threatened Hillary Clinton’s perceived dominance in the primary on a campaign largely fueled by young people, millennials have been a constant drum beat throughout this election cycle. Now that Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening in the polls and Senate races across the country are too close to call, attention is once again turning to the most unpredictable voters in the American electorate: millennials.
Millennials are already the largest demographic in the country representing 77 million people and 24% of the population. As more millennials come of age and begin increasing their political participation, politicians must become acutely aware of their values and desires in order to effectively communicate with them. A good starting place for politicians attempting to engage millennial voters and others trying to predict their political behavior is to understand who millennial voters are. What motivates us? And what would make us participate at the historic levels experienced in 2008 and 2012?
I believe there are three characteristics that differentiate millennial voters from all others:
INTERNET GENERATION. The first, and most transformative characteristic of millennial voters is that we grew up with internet in our homes, quite literally creating limitless access to information and to each other. This made our world significantly smaller and made foreign people and cultures more familiar. No longer could we use ignorance to justify our intolerance. If we wanted to know more about something or someone we could learn about it from the comfort of our homes, even the comfort of our own beds.
But the internet had a more disruptive effect on millennials than access to information and to each other. The internet gave us access to a transformative tool that would power our movements, amplify our voices, and transform the way we mobilize — it gave us social media. In fact, when asked who speaks for them only one-third of millennials responded with traditional organizations like NAACP and Urban League, one-third said emerging organizations like Black Lives Matter and Color of Change, but shockingly, another third said neither. That is because social media has given millennials a platform for our voices that detaches us from reliance on a centralized spokesperson. For the first time, a thought, meme, or video shared on social media by a college student in Kansas can change the entire national dialogue.
MAJORITY-MINORITY GENERATION. The second characteristic that defines millennial voters is that we will inherit and govern a majority-minority America for the first time ever. Like the internet, this has seismic effects on the perspectives and priorities of millennial voters. America is projected to become majority-minority by 2045, but millennials already live this reality. Diversity is not only happening from the youngest of our population up, it is highly concentrated in urban centers that 72% of millennials call home.
Our friends, colleagues, and neighbors are minorities, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, and first-generation Americans. Not only does this make many millennials more sensitive to the plight of marginalized populations, it also makes us more likely to be insensitive to the bigotry and xenophobia that has permeated mainstream politics during this election cycle. As a result, priorities for millennials revolve around issues of justice and equity including immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and LGBTQ rights. We understand how inextricably related our destinies are to each other’s successes and want to create an America that is more true to those ideals. That is why in 2008, 66% of millennials were attracted to Barack Obama’s message of hope, unity, and a better tomorrow that we can only create together.
GREAT RECESSION GENERATION. The final defining characteristic that has shaped millennials’ perspective and priorities is that we entered the workforce during the Great Recession or the subsequent recovery. The first 10 years of a person’s career are critical to the wealth they will accumulate over their lives. During the early stages of millennials’ careers wealth creation was secondary to survival. In 2009, the year Obama took office, young adult unemployment was double the national average, 18%, and student loan debt had reached crippling levels.
For millennials, this represented a personal crisis but also an ethical crisis for our nation. Since then, millennials have led the charge for economic justice, first with the Occupy Movement against the top 1% of Americans who control 99% of the country’s wealth, and more recently fueling the populist, and self-described Democratic-Socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders. During the primary season, Sanders dominated young voters against Clinton (often 4:1) largely because his message of economic justice, more equitable distribution of wealth, and a sharp reduction in the cost of secondary education resonated with young voters who bared the greatest burden of the Great Recession.
Millennial voters are vastly different than every generation prior. Contrary to popular belief, millennials are highly involved in politics and see it as a way to affect change in their communities, but that does not always equate to voting on Election Day.
85% say they closely follow politics, 36% say very closely.
53% say they often discuss political information with friends and family.
72% say pressure to participate in this election is to stand up for their own views.
While political involvement remains high among millennials, their participation on Election Day could be reduced by the lack of enthusiasm toward either major party candidate. While Trump remains highly unpopular among millennials, there has not been a swell of excitement for Clinton, which is causing a drag on Senate candidates from both parties down ballot.
75% of voters have unfavorable attitude toward Donald Trump
36% of millennial voters are undecided between GOP and Democratic Senate candidates
44% of millennial voters are supporting a third party candidate for president
Millennials are going to have a major impact on this election one way or another. If they show up to the polls in large numbers, Democrats will do well. If they do not, Republicans could do better. We do not have to look much further for proof of this than the previous two Democratic presidential nominees. John Kerry lost to George Bush in 2004 by three million votes. Four years later, Barack Obama beat John McCain, largely as a result of the three million more young people who voted for him than previously voted for Kerry in 2004.
Again inspired by Obama in 2012, millennials had an unprecedented higher turnout rate than senior citizens. High levels of youth participation resulted in Democrats maintaining the White House, taking two seats in the Senate to form the majority, and picking up eight seats in the House. By huge contrast, just two years later in the 2014 midterm election, senior citizens made up almost twice as much of the electorate as millennials. Democrats lost nine seats in the Senate, 13 seats in the House.
The impact that millennials have on the results of American elections is undeniable. Will politicians engage them in an aspirational way that addresses their values and priorities? Or will millions of young people be left on the political sideline, disenfranchised from a political cycle that marginalized their issues? In just 56 days we will know exactly which direction millennials will move this country that we are anxious to inherit.
Terrance Woodbury is a senior analyst with Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, a public opinion research firm that conducts focus groups and polls to understand American voters and consumers.