The Two Tactics in the Fight for Millennials

Student-loan debt has become a symbolic issue for Republicans and Democrats trying to court young people's votes.

It was telling that when President Obama unveiled his latest proposal to restrain student debt earlier this week, Senate Republicans initially fired back not with a criticism of the plan itself but with a release that cataloged an array of grim statistics on young people's experiences in the economy. The exchange captured the contrast between the approaches Democrats and Republicans are using to court the massive millennial generation, whose electoral influence is steadily expanding.

Obama's new effort to cap student-loan debts illuminated a Democratic strategy of pursuing the millennial generation by offering them programs and policies that align with their views. The Senate Republican response shows a GOP that is courting millennials around a broader argument centered on the economic struggles many of them are facing.

It's the political equivalent of philosopher Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. Like the fox, Democrats say millennials agree with them on many things. Like the hedgehog, Republicans say Democrats are failing millennials on the one big thing that matters most: providing them economic opportunity.

So far, Democrats have gotten the better of the argument. As the first millennials have moved into the electorate since 2000 (the generation is best described as the 90 million-plus young people born from 1981 through 2002), Democrats have enjoyed a consistent advantage with younger voters. In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of voters under 30. His advantage slipped in 2012, but he still carried three-fifths of them.

Looking forward, though, the generation seems more conflicted. Analysts in both parties agree that millennials' economic struggles have prevented Democrats from solidifying their support as much as appeared possible after Obama's first victory.

The depth of their economic discontent rang through a recent poll conducted as part of a series of joint National Journal/Atlantic millennial town halls underwritten by Microsoft.

In the survey, only a little more than one-third of millennials described current economic conditions as either very good (8 percent) or even somewhat good (27 percent). Fewer than one-fourth thought the economy was better than a year ago. Nor was there much optimism about the months ahead: In the poll, only 27 percent thought the economy would be better one year from now.

On all of these questions, young whites without a college degree were especially pessimistic. But the larger story was the consistency of this economic discontent across the millennial generation, even among groups that otherwise have been the most supportive of Obama and Democrats. The share of nonwhite millennials who said the economy was good today or likely to improve over the next year was not meaningfully larger than the share of whites; women were no more optimistic than men.

The March 14-18 survey by the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas (Austin) was conducted online, so the results may not be as statistically precise as those from a random-digit-dial telephone poll. But they're consistent with other polling—polling that paints a distinctly gloomy picture of millennials' moods.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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