It’s the summer before a presidential election year, or as I like to call it, “peak political circus season.” The field of Democratic candidates hoping to unseat President Trump is as wide as the growing gulf between the party’s progressive and moderate factions (i.e., pretty darn wide), making for dizzyingly distended debate stages as we hit mid-July.
At the forefront of speculation when it comes to the selection of a party candidate, and the ultimate outcome of the presidential race, is the Millennial generation. Now the second largest voting bloc (after the Baby Boomers) in the United States, the generation – aged 22 to 38, based on Pew Research Center’s definition – has the heft to decide, or at least sway, the election. So the question is: what do they want in a candidate?
According to Pew, most Millennials identify as Democrats or as leaning Democrat – 59% of them. However, when parsing the parties, more actually identify as independents: 44% are independent, 35% are Democrats and 17% are Republicans, according to a 2018 analysis by Pew.
With nearly 60% of the Millennial generation leaning Democrat, perhaps the simple answer to the question is that what most Millennials want in a candidate is someone who has values that either align or closely align with those of the Democratic Party.
In this early stage of the 2020 presidential race, they have no shortage of options. The youngest candidate is 37 – South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Millennial – while the oldest, Senator Bernie Sanders, is 77. There are women, men, people of color, and gay candidates – a variety more in line with the Millennial generation itself, which is by far the most diverse voting bloc yet.
Who will be successful in appealing to Millennial voters, and why? I posed this question to Danielle Glover, executive vice president of the Young Democrats of America. The organization has 150,000 members nationwide, allowing participation through the age of 36. Glover has been involved with YDA for almost 10 years, and currently works in politics in the Denver area.
When it comes to issues of importance to Millennial voters, Glover said, “What we hear from our members over and over again are things around affordable housing, student loan debt, and equity issues – making sure that the candidates are looking at things from a racial and social justice lens.” Also of importance to young Democrats are the rights of people of color, the LGBTQ community and women. “The big things are always around access to choice and to abortion, to protecting our communities of color and LGBT rights, and dealing with the student loan crisis,” she noted.
“Affordability when it comes to housing is really key. When you look at student loan debt, that affects the ability buy houses,” Glover said. According to a recent survey by Bankrate.com, more Millennials have student loan debt than individuals in any other generation. About 39% of Millennial respondents to the survey said they have or had had student loan debt. “Among Millennials with student loans, 38% have delayed emergency savings, 31% have delayed buying a home, 25% have delayed retirement savings and 17% have delayed getting married,” the report noted.
“We are living very different lives than our parents or grandparents or great grandparents were living,” Glover observed. To that point, in February, Pew Research put out a useful summary of major differences between the Millennial generation and those before it, entitled, “Millennial life: How young adulthood today compared with prior generations.” In summation of that summary: Millennials are better educated (thus the student loan debt), they are more racially and ethnically diverse, women among them are more likely to be in the workforce than those in older generations, they are more often delaying or forgoing marriage, they are slower to form their own households, and, as noted earlier, they are more Democratic.
“There are a lot of people . . . in the older generation who understand where our priorities are. But change can be hard, and it is important that we keep pushing back and telling our story on any policy issue,” Glover said. “And some times that does include within the [Democratic] party.”
Asked who among the vast field of Democratic presidential candidates stands the greatest likelihood of winning the Millennial vote, Glover didn’t name names. She noted, however, that when YDA leadership communicates with members, they often find that many haven’t yet settled on one candidate, instead for now choosing to support two or three.
“The candidates that are going to win the support of young Americans are going to be the candidates that are talking about our issues,” she said. “We’re lucky right now that we have such a diverse group of folks. We have multiple women running. We have multiple people of color running. We have a woman of color running. We have a Millennial running.” Young Americans find this diversity exciting, she said.
“I think the biggest thing is going to be which one of those candidates isn’t just talking to us, but is listening to us,” Glover reflected. “There are a lot of people who have been talking to us and telling us what we should think and how their plan is the best. But the policies that are designed with the input of those who are going to be impacted, those are the policies that are going to work, and those are the people who are going to be able to attract young voters,” she explained. “It’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”
According to Emerson Polling’s July National Poll, former Vice President Joe Biden is leading among all age groups, including Millennials. He is followed in popularity by Sanders, and then by Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
This is a departure from previous polls, Emerson’s analysis noted, in which Sanders had typically been most popular among young voters. While Sanders lost ground, Harris and Warren shored up support.
Who will ultimately win Millennials’ seal of approval? Your guess is as good as mine – and I don’t even have one yet.