College campuses look strikingly different today in comparison to 2008. Millions of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign bumper stickers, hats, shirts screamed enthusiasm. Not only that, but also the level of engagement online in 2008 does not even begin to compare to how it is today. With millennials currently making up 31 percent of the overall electorate, on par with baby boomers, makes them a key component in the 2016 election.
This election cycle, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the candidate for voters between the ages of 18 and 29. With 84 percent of the youth vote, Sanders had the magic youth voters were looking for. Even after his concession to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June, millennials just cannot seem to rally around Clinton in the same manner of enthusiasm they had towards Sanders and Obama. Many polls, including Quinnipiac and Gallup, have revealed young voters are gravitating towards Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson. Johnson has closed the gap between himself and Clinton among millennials, only trailing by 2 percentage points, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Given that Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were solidified by the youth vote with over 60 percent of the share in both elections, this is particularly troublesome for the Clinton campaign. Despite the Democratic Party’s efforts to send highly favored politicians like First Lady Michelle Obama and Sanders to campaign for Clinton, or framing the third-party vote as a vote for the business-mogul, Donald Trump, the message is not translating well among millennials.
Sanders and Obama both centralized their message around themes of hope and change, which deeply resonate among youth voters. In fact, according to Nate Silver, young voters tend to view the idea of “socialism” more favorably than older voters. For older voters who grew up during the Cold War, socialism did not imply far left progressive policies, but rather communism and un-American ideals. Sanders, who refers to himself as a “democratic socialist,” benefits from this generational shift in attitudes towards socialism. This generational shift towards progressive policies and the brutal primary Democratic contest may foreshadow the future of the Democratic Party. No matter what efforts the Clinton campaign takes, it is virtually impossible to ignore the media’s years of characterizing the Clintons as untrustworthy and as a member of the corrupt political establishment. Not only that, but given that Bill Clinton served as President for the majority of the 1990s, the Clintons were most millennials first introduction to politics. As young voters gravitate towards candidates that promise change like “socialism,” Clinton is unlikely to convince 60 percent of young voters to support her.
Even with an opponent like Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has unapologetically offended persons with disabilities, Hispanics, Muslims, and women, being the lesser of two evils can only take Clinton so far. The 2005 video of Trump’s vulgar comments about women barely increased Clinton’s polling margin. John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, conducted a focus group on eight undecided millennials and concluded, “a lot of them have a harder time than I expected understanding the difference that President Trump would have on their personal life compared to President Clinton.”
In a matter of hours, we will find out whether millennials gravitate further to third party candidates or simply sit out this election. Young voters are often criticized for being detached and given such unpopular candidates, their overall enthusiasm has reached a new low. It certainly does not look like an election year on most college campuses outside of the DMV. Nonetheless, there have been greater levels of outrage on campuses across the country demonstrated by protests, violence, and outrageous social media posts. Just like the rest of the nation, millennials are fed up with lack of thoughtful policies in the past and the grim picture of the future that has been painted and seek a genuine change in the way U.S. politics have been conducted. Hopefully, this lack of enthusiasm and faith in the political system does not translate into a record low turnout at the polls.