When Hillary Clinton delivers a speech aimed at Millennials in Philadelphia on Monday, she will be confronting perhaps the most persistent weakness in her career as a national candidate.
Clinton struggled among Millennial voters in her 2008 primary campaign, her 2016 primary campaign, and in the 2016 general election. Against Donald Trump, Clinton has two big advantages—a policy agenda that polls show largely matches Millennials’ own preferences, and an opponent even more unpopular with them than with the public overall. But she also must overcome her own long history of failing to connect with this growing group of voters—a failure that is increasingly worrying Democrats as the overall race tightens.
“This could very easily be the difference between winning the election or not,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster who is regularly polling Millennials during this campaign. “If she ends up with them at 50 percent [of the vote] or 55 percent or 60 percent, those are hugely different scenarios.”
In simplest terms, Clinton’s problem is that large numbers of Millennials have never warmed to her as a national candidate.
In 2008, the cumulative analysis of all exit polls conducted during the Democratic primary found that Millennial voters preferred Barack Obama over Clinton by a solid margin of 58 percent to 38 percent. Eight years later, running against Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist who was virtually unknown as a national figure when the race began, Clinton lost Millennials even more resoundingly, 71 percent to 28 percent, according to a cumulative analysis of exit poll results by the ABC pollster Gary Langer. Sanders beat Clinton among Millennials in all of the 27 Democratic primary and caucus states with exit polls this year, except Mississippi and Alabama. Even in states she won comfortably, like New York and Pennsylvania, Sanders beat her by two-to-one or more among the youngest voters.
The skepticism has persisted into the general election. Virtually all national and state surveys show Clinton leading Trump among Millennial voters. But the same polls show her falling well short of Obama’s showing among them, according to exit polls, in 2008 (67 percent) or 2012 (60 percent). Even more important, they show her failing to consolidate the enormous share of Millennials who express unfavorable views about Trump. Instead, many of those voters now say they will support libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
In almost every recent poll there’s a huge fall off between the share of Millennials who express disdain for Trump and the percentage who support Clinton. That’s one key reason the overall race remains so close.
Consider the recent George Washington University Battleground Poll conducted by Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, and Celinda Lake, a Democrat. In that survey, 73 percent of Millennials said they had an unfavorable view of Trump, 68 percent said they trusted Clinton more than him to defend the middle class, 64 percent trusted her more to handle foreign policy, and 61 percent favored her over Trump to manage the economy. Yet in a four-way ballot test, she drew just 46 percent support, compared to 26 percent for Trump, 18 percent for Johnson, and 5 percent for Stein.
In last week’s ABC/Washington Post poll, which released results from adults 18-39, a group that extends slightly beyond the Millennial Generation, 70 percent of those younger Americans said Trump was not qualified to serve as president and 66 percent said he was biased against women and minorities. But in the four-way match-up, Clinton again drew just 44 percent to 24 percent for Trump, 20 percent for Johnson, and 6 percent for Stein.
A survey of Millennials in 11 battleground states released last week by Baumann’s firm, the Global Strategy Group, for Project New America and NextGen Climate presents the same daunting contrast for Clinton. In that survey, 75 percent of Millennials say they view Trump unfavorably, 73 percent describe him as a “racist,” and 70 percent say he is “unfit to protect our country from major threats.” But among likely voters, this survey again found Clinton drawing 48 percent, to Trump’s 23 percent, 13 percent for Johnson, and 8 percent for Stein.
Despite comparably negative assessments of Trump, both CBS/New York Times and Quinnipiac University surveys released last week placed Clinton’s support among Millennials in the four-way contest even lower, below 40 percent (although she continued to lead Trump). So did a Fox News poll, which showed her with the narrowest margin over Trump among Millennials in a four-way test (38 percent to 33 percent). That was also the only recent national survey to find that Clinton’s margin among Millennials didn’t contract from the two-way comparison with Trump to the four-way test that includes Johnson and Stein.
None of these national polls show Clinton approaching Obama’s 60 percent vote share with Millennials last time. Among all of them, just the Global Strategy Group survey show her in the four-way race equaling or exceeding Obama’s 23 percentage point advantage among members of that generation. While the latest Global Strategy Group survey found some improvement for Clinton compared to the firm’s first poll in July, “she is by no means where she needs to be,” Baumann said. “There is still a danger of Millennials going to Johnson or Stein or staying at home. There is still a lot of work to do.”
In state polling, where the Millennial sample can be very small, there is not as clear a pattern of Johnson and Stein pulling more voters from Clinton than Trump. But state polls do reaffirm the trend of Clinton’s vote among Millennials running well below the proportion of them who view Trump unfavorably. In the latest round of NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist state polls, Clinton’s support among Millennials in the two way test of just her and Trump ran 11 points below the share who viewed Trump unfavorably in Nevada, 16 points in Arizona, and 22 points in both New Hampshire and Georgia.
These results send Republicans an unmistakable message about the long-term threat Trump poses to their standing with the Millennials, who will roughly equal Baby Boomers, for the first time, as a share of eligible voters this year and substantially exceed them by 2020 (when Millennials are expected to comprise more than one-third of eligible voters). Most of these national and state surveys put Trump’s support among these younger voters well below 30 percent; even the best polls for him (Quinnipiac and Fox) show him drawing just one-third of them.
In the GWU Battleground Poll, two-thirds of Millennials say they would never consider voting for Trump; in the Quinnipiac poll, 60 percent of them said they had a “strongly” unfavorable view of him. Perhaps most ominously for Republicans, around three-fourths of Millennials consistently describe him as racially biased or appealing to bigotry—underscoring the risk that he is painting the GOP as a party of white racial backlash precisely as the most diverse generation in American history is poised to become the electorate’s largest.
And yet because Democrats rely more on younger voters, it is Clinton who faces the most immediate need to improve with them. The Global Strategy Group poll shows there is no shortage of issues she can use to make a connection: Roughly three-fourths of Millennials in the battleground states said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported universal background checks for gun purchases; would limit carbon emissions to combat global warming; protect a woman’s right to abortion; and pursue policies to create debt-free college. Clinton embraces, and Trump opposes, all of those positions.
But the message from all of these polls is that Clinton’s problems with younger voters are rooted not in policy but in personal assessments. Big majorities of Millennials, the polls show, view her as untrustworthy, calculating, and unprincipled. Which is another way of saying they have accepted the portrait that Bernie Sanders painted of her during their long primary struggle. In the GWU Battleground Poll, 66 percent of Millennials said she says what is politically convenient, while only 22 percent said she says what she believes. In the Quinnipiac survey, 77 percent said she was not honest and trustworthy. “It’s hard for them after hearing that for a year [from Sanders] to just turn on a dime,” Baumann says.
Those are big headwinds, and privately more top Democratic strategists are growing concerned that she will not entirely resolve them before November. (Even Sanders’s first fall foray onto the trail for Clinton reflected that resistance. His two campus appearances in Ohio last weekend drew small crowds that might not have filled the overflow room during his primary campaign.) Baumann believes that given the doubts many Millennials harbor about Clinton, it’s highly unlikely in a four-way race that she will ever equal Obama’s 60 percent showing from 2012 (much less his 67 percent from 2008). Reaching 55 percent, he says, is probably the most she can achieve. But the difference between that and her current level of Millenial support, in the mid-40s, he adds, might be the difference between success and failure in some of the most closely contested states.
“I don’t think between now and the election, Millennials are going to come around and love Hillary Clinton,” Baumann said. “But I think she can make gains that can be enough to turn some of the important states toward her.” But with polls showing her margin for error against Trump eroding, Clinton’s team would probably take good enough among Millennials.