Candidates are trying for the Millennial vote. They should try harder

Will anyone running for president in 2016 step up to be the "first Millennial president?" I'm not optimistic.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Millennial vote.

In the 2010 midterm elections, voter turnout among Americans ages 18 to 29 was a depressing 24%, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. It got worse four years later. Only 21.3% of Millennials went to the polls in the 2014 midterms.

The numbers are a bit more encouraging in presidential election cycles. In 2008, Millennials were credited with helping to propel then-Sen. Barack Obama into the White House, accounting for 3.4 million votes than they did in the 2004 election and getting credit for realigning American politics. Tufts University found young voters came out in force again – and again decisively for Obama – in 2012, helping to put him over the top versus Mitt Romney.

Critics will use the data as another (misguided) example of Millennials being flakey. I think they’re wrong. Millennials are just like any other consumer group. Give them a good reason, whether financial or emotional, and they’ll turn out.

However, I’m skeptical that any of the 2016 candidates have gotten off on the right foot with Millennials and can replicate Obama’s performance with the group in the last two presidential elections. The reason is a mix of personality, policy, and communications.

First, let’s be clear about the political realities: this is the Democrats’ turf to defend. Nearly half of Millennials identify as Democrats, compared with only a third of Republicans, according to a Pew Research study released last year. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has made a number of overtures to younger audiences, from launching an Instagram account on the eve of her campaign kickoff to trying with mixed results to communicate with emojis on Twitter.

Clinton’s bigger problem is Sen. Bernie Sanders’ momentum in the polls and the drip-drip-drip of stories about her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. The latter could be a much larger problem than the former with Millennials, who according to poll after poll value authenticity above nearly all else as consumers.

On the other hand, Clinton has emphasized a program that would help undergraduates pay their college tuition costs, an issue near and dear to many young professionals’ hearts and wallets.

Sanders, meanwhile, is the closest thing to a "viral candidate" yet seen in the 2016 race, but questions remain about his staying power. And while former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is considerably closer in age to young voters, he’s struggling to get out of the low single digits in some polls.

The Republicans are much more of a mixed bag. Early frontrunner Donald Trump’s stream-of-consciousness Twitter account is authentic in some ways, yet inconsistent with conservative dogma in many others. Marco Rubio clearly stood out for his youthfulness and forward-looking ideas among the crowd during last Thursday’s prime-time Republican debate.  However, the GOP may again fail to score with Millennials due to its widespread stance on marriage equality, an issue where it is squarely at odds with younger voters.  

It’s time for both parties to take Millennial voter outreach more seriously. In this election, Millennials will account for roughly the same number of eligible voters as Baby Boomers, though fewer will likely go to the ballot box. The real changing of the guard should take place in 2020.

I’m looking to see what candidate will step forward to be the "first Millennial candidate," at least in terms of communications style and substance if not in age. So far, I’m only guardedly optimistic.

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.    

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