Columns » Jay Barth

Clinton's millennial challenge


  • Gage Skidmore

The worst week in modern presidential campaign history: That's what many are calling a 7-day period during which Donald Trump was outgunned in the first debate and transitioned immediately into his meltdown over former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, only to be followed by the New York Times bringing to light his abnormal income tax history over the weekend. While Hillary Clinton is not yet back to the advantage she had in the weeks following the successful Democratic National Convention and Trump's incessant sparring with the Khan family, she is now in a markedly advantaged position with only five weeks until Election Day. The enthusiasm gap between Trump and Clinton voters, which has showed the Republican's voters more excited about casting their votes, has also closed in post-debate polling.

Despite all these decidedly positive signs for the Clinton campaign, one fundamentally important challenge remains for her campaign: millennial voters. Donald Trump is actually slightly underperforming the relatively weak performance of Mitt Romney in 2012 with this youngest group of eligible voters, but a chasm exists between Clinton's showing with those under 30 and that of Barack Obama in 2012 in two respects. First, millennials remain relatively disengaged in the voting process this year, suggesting turnout will be low. Second, as shown in the most recent CBS News/New York Times survey released on Monday, only 40 percent of voters under 30 are committed to Clinton. A significant portion of the rest are leaning towards support for either Libertarian Gary Johnson (21 percent) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein (5 percent).

As a college professor, I get the good fortune of spending lots of time with these voters who remain deeply dubious about a vote for Clinton. At the core of this hesitancy is the strong perception that Clinton is both substantively and stylistically inauthentic. This also drove Sen. Bernie Sanders's extraordinary margins with this group of voters in the Democratic nomination battle with Clinton. Clinton came to the national scene at a much more moderate era in American politics in an emphatically more moderate Democratic party, heavily influenced by the Democratic Leadership Council (a movement within the party that the Rev. Jesse Jackson famously termed "Democrats for the Leisure Class"). American politics has shifted significantly to the left, and Democratic activists, with younger voters leading the pack, have moved even more emphatically. Thus, because of her survival over a period of significant political change, Clinton is inherently perceived as inauthentic among those who lack a firsthand experience with the shifts in the national mood. Moreover, as has been much discussed, Clinton's public steeliness resists the spontaneity and human touch that are at the core of political authenticity.

How can Clinton close this "authenticity gap" with young progressives enough to get them to the polls for her in November if she herself lacks the personal skills and political history to pull it off?

First, she is fortunate to have figures in her stable of surrogates that show particular promise with millennials, including Sanders, President Obama, Michelle Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. All are on the road for Clinton, often making appearances on college campuses or in other venues where younger voters are highlighted. They are also the focus of Clinton's newest advertising. They all make an appearance in a lively web ad released last week and a segment from Obama's emphatic speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is excerpted in a sharp ad developed by the superPAC supporting Clinton. As popular as these political elites are, the campaign really needs to move toward nontraditional messengers with particular credence with millennials to enhance the authenticity of the message. Younger actors and musicians are a start in this direction, but vloggers (those with popular video blogs) are even more likely to connect with millennials who share their worldviews.

Second, the Clinton campaign has over-relied on traditional television advertising. While many of the ads are effective, they too often recount Clinton's long career in public service (which has the downside mentioned above) and have little ability to connect with a generation watching television less and less. (Total television watching time has dropped 38 percent among 18-24 years olds in the past five years.) Web ads are one step in that direction, but the focus in these ads has primarily been Trump's troubling statements attacking veterans and women rather than positive messaging about Clinton's plans for the future. The most successful effort in this arena was Clinton's well-done appearance on Zach Galifianakis's "Between Two Ferns."

Finally, she needs to shift to content that centers on those issues — including climate change and student debt — that matter enormously to millennials. The joint appearance with Clinton and Sanders on access to higher education last week worked particularly well as Sanders validated her message on an issue that was a hallmark of his campaign. In the closing weeks of the campaign, such events on such issues must be the norm for Clinton, who must also avoid the temptation to hammer Trump for his failings.

The good news for Clinton is that, even in these closing weeks before Nov. 8, younger voters retain some clear malleability in whether they will vote and how they will vote. Moving her support closer to Obama's level of support in 2012 may be the last piece to the election puzzle for the Clinton campaign.

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