The sixth in a 10-part series
PHILADELPHIA – At a focus group here Wednesday evening, eight suburban millennials of various backgrounds – most of them undecided in the presidential race – were asked to describe in several words how they felt about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. For Trump, the responses were harsh almost across the board: “racist, misogynist, poor businessman,” said one participant; “bigot,” said another; “evil, bad, judgmental,” said a third. "Hot-tempered but smart" was the only exception to this trend.
But the Clinton responses weren’t positive either. “Career politician,” said one participant derisively; “bitch, liar, false,” said another. Some were mixed on how they felt: “untrustworthy but stable” said one person; “shady but knowledgeable,” said another; “hard-working, corrupt, a real-deal politician,” said one more. The only participant to say something positive about Clinton without a negative attached described her simply as “experienced.”
Young voters represent a key constituency for Clinton, and Wednesday’s focus group, hosted by the Harvard Institute of Politics, gave particular insight into why they haven’t flocked behind her candidacy. Two participants in particular encapsulated both the potential for Clinton with this voting bloc, and the struggles she’s had in realizing it.
Tim Venne, 26, a small-business consultant in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a registered Republican who backed John McCain in 2008, though he did vote for President Obama in 2012. He finds Trump completely unacceptable as a candidate – he’s the participant who labeled the GOP nominee a “bigot” – but isn’t thrilled about backing Clinton, whom he labeled a “career politician.”
“It’s kind of a matter of swallowing my pride,” Venne said. “I say that I’m undecided, but the reality in my view is it’s either voting for Trump or a vote for one of the third parties and I’m just essentially endorsing him. Given that I’m against that, [voting for Clinton is] the move I feel I have to make.”
On the flip side, however, is Amanda, 27, who asked that her last name be withheld. She’s the exact kind of voter Clinton has courted this election: a white, suburban single mom who voted for Obama in 2008, but didn’t vote in 2012, someone who is frustrated, she said, by the failings of the Affordable Care Act. But Amanda finds Clinton completely unacceptable – she’s the one who labeled her, “bitch, liar, false” – and is instead a passionate supporter of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. She said a co-worker has tried to convince her that voting for a third party candidate is throwing away her vote and helping Trump, but she is adamant, calling it a “scare tactic.”
“She’s the embodiment of fake to me,” she said of Clinton. “Even her smile, everything about her feels fake, and not genuine.”
While there are opportunities to sway millennial voters like Venne, Clinton has struggled to consolidate support from voters like Amanda, who have leaned toward the third party candidates at relatively high percentages. Though the Democratic nominee is consistently far ahead of Trump in terms of this bloc’s support, it still falls short of the degree to which millennials backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. Also, many millennials have unfavorable views of both candidates and say they are less likely to vote this year.
Clinton’s campaign has pulled out all the stops to reverse this trend, making a more direct appeal to millennial issues such as college affordability and climate change, and sending out popular Democratic surrogates including Bernie Sanders -- who became a millennial whisperer during the Democratic primary -- the president and first lady. The areas the campaign has targeted are places where Clinton can make up the most ground among young voters.
Sanders, for example, is barnstorming the Midwest this week: He spoke at a rally in Minnesota on Tuesday, campaigned in Des Moines, Iowa and Green Bay and Madison, Wis., Wednesday and is scheduled to appear in four Michigan cities Thursday, including major college towns East Lansing and Ann Arbor.
Sanders has also campaigned for his onetime rival at college towns in Ohio and with Clinton herself in New Hampshire. Discussing college affordability there, the appearance underlined just how important the septuagenarian senator from Vermont will be in helping Clinton win over young voters. Millennials overwhelmingly supported him in the Democratic primary, and have been slow to consolidate around the nominee.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said before the vice presidential debate Tuesday that there has been growing support among millennials since Clinton’s debate performance last week, increasing her advantage over Trump.
“We did see an increase in support among millennial voters after the first debate, but that was on top of an already at least 2-to-1 advantage that we have with millennial voters,” Mook said. “Secretary Clinton is going to win this campaign because of millennial voters.”
Still, the troubles with Sanders’ voters persist, despite some improvement. A poll in 11 battleground states conducted by NextGen Climate and Project New America asked likely millennial voters supportive of Sanders whether they would back Clinton or a third party candidate. In July, 65 percent said Clinton and 20 percent said either Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In late August, 74 percent said they would back Clinton and just 15 percent supported third party candidates.
“The tide has been moving at least a little bit,” said Andrew Baumann, the Democratic pollster who conducted the survey. “It’s not easy for them to just flip a switch on this.”
“What [Sanders] is doing is very helpful and is necessary, but it’s going to take more than him showing up once or twice to convince these voters.”
Baumann pointed out that despite Clinton’s decades-long career in Washington, many first-time young voters were introduced to her through the lens of Sanders’ primary attacks. He said a sustained presence by Sanders on the campaign trail could further alleviate concerns created from that.
“What he is doing is very helpful and is necessary, but it’s going to take more than him showing up once or twice to convince these voters,” Baumann said.
The other issue for Democrats is making sure millennials actually show up to vote. In the September prior to the last five presidential elections, Gallup surveyed how likely Americans were to vote for president. In 2000, 60 percent of voters under 35 said they would definitely vote. That number jumped up to 74 percent in 2008 before falling to 58 percent in 2012. This year, only 47 percent say they definitely plan to vote.
“I don’t think the Clinton campaign has succeeded in making young people afraid of [a] Trump presidency,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
The battleground polls bear that out, but also show things shifting toward Clinton. In July, 36 percent of millennial voters said there was no difference between Clinton and Trump on the most important issues; that number dropped to 29 percent in late August. Baumann’s group is currently conducting its third iteration of the survey, likely to be released in the coming weeks.
Despite such clear signs of movement in Clinton’s direction, the numbers may still cause problems in certain key states. In North Carolina, 1.5 million millennials make up a quarter of the state’s likely voting population, according to Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center. That proportion has increased significantly since 2008, Tippett said. In a Bloomberg poll this week, Clinton was outpacing Trump, 62 percent-25 percent, among voters under 35. That’s a significant margin, but slightly less than Obama’s when he won the Tar Heel State in 2008.
In Pennsylvania, a state critical to Trump’s Electoral College map and where Clinton has consistently led in the RealClearPolitics average, millennials clustered around Philadelphia are highly important Democratic voters, according to Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College poll. Millennials make up about one-fifth of the voting population there, he said, and Clinton is polling well under Obama’s 2008 and 2012 margins.
At the end of August, she was leading Trump by 46 percent-32 percent among voters under 35, according to the Franklin and Marshall poll; that spiked to a 55 percent-19 percent advantage in a poll conducted after the first debate. But Obama carried voters ages 18-29 by a 63 percent-35 percent advantage in 2012, and voters aged 30-44 by a 55 percent-43 percent margin.
Clinton’s campaign has “every reason to be concerned. The enthusiasm gap exists.”
“They have every reason to be concerned. The enthusiasm gap exists,” Madonna said.
In Florida, the problem is perhaps most pronounced. Trump led narrowly in the RCP average for much of September, but Clinton has regained a 2.9 percentage point lead, according to the current average. But the race there has remained relatively tight throughout the campaign, and the state is another critical part of Trump’s narrow Electoral College path.
In a Mason-Dixon poll of the state in late August, Clinton led by 45 percent-29 percent among voters under 35, with 14 percent supporting Johnson, the libertarian. In late September, after the first debate, 49 percent supported Clinton while 32 percent backed Trump and 13 percent favored Johnson. Those numbers might not be enough for Clinton, however.
The reason: Obama narrowly defeated Romney by 75,000 votes in the state in 2012, but Baumann said just 5 percent of the likely millennial voting population there amounts to approximately 95,000 votes.
“The difference between Hillary Clinton getting 50 versus 55 percent of millennials in Florida could very easily be the difference between winning and losing,” Baumann said.
To narrow that gap, Clinton will likely have to further impress upon young voters the differences between a potential Trump and Clinton presidency.
“Donald Trump’s outlook, his leadership style, the divisive language, the bigotry runs so counter to who the millennial generation is that there is both an enormous opportunity in having Hillary Clinton president but such a deep threat to their values through electing Donald Trump,” Mook said. “I think that is why we’re going to see that historically high turnout."