Be Like Bernie

As the baby boomer cohort continues to shrink, millennials are beginning to rise into the political ranks, especially on the left. With the 2020 presidential election fast approaching, the Democratic Party has increasingly turned its attention to courting these young voters in its fight to take back the White House.

Yet in order to capitalize on the increasing power of young voters, Democratic candidates will need to change their strategies. Distrustful of baby boomer representatives, as well as of the media and older voters, young Americans want a candidate who stands on principle, regardless of how it impacts his electability, and who can engage them through technology. In 2020, young Americans are looking for a candidate who is like them where it counts.

People of Principle

As parties become increasingly polarized, Democratic Party leadership seems focused on finding a candidate who can win. Moving into the 2020 primary season, the question on many left-leaning minds is not which candidate stands on the best policies but rather, who can beat Donald Trump.

Though this approach may seem like savvy strategy in the short term, candidates seeking to garner the youth vote may benefit more from following trends in youth political attitudes than trends in electability. A poll organized by the Harvard Public Opinion Project indicated that 82 percent of millennial respondents believe that it is more important for a candidate to share his political views than to be an electable politician. Across all demographics, youth support for candidates who share their political perspectives never falls below 75 percent of respondents. Regardless of political views or personal experiences, millennial voters care more about candidates who share their beliefs than those who they believe can win in a general election, favoring principle over political strategy.

Putting policy before electability will only become more imperative for political candidates as millennials move towards becoming the largest voting block in the country. This is especially true for Democrats, who tend to receive the majority of millennial support.  In the 2016 presidential election, 55 percent of millennials voted for Clinton, while only 37 percent voted for Trump. Even for Republicans, though, youth represent an increasingly important electoral demographic. While millennials had the lowest voter turnout rate in 2016, this trend is set to change, with 63 percent of millennial respondents in the HPOP poll indicating that they will definitely vote in the 2020 election. Already, millennial voting power has been increasing in every election since the peak of baby boomer voting power in 2004.

Out with the Old

To communicate their policy positions to millennial voters, candidates should stay away from mainstream media outlets. HPOP data shows that only 14 percent of young people trust the media to do the right thing, though Democrats are twice as likely to trust the media when compared to Republicans at 23 percent to 10 percent. Even appealing to the most established news networks may not be an effective way of reaching young voters, as Business Insider reports that only 17 percent of all people who watch television news are millennials.

This does not mean that all media outreach is lost on millennials. Young voters are still consuming political news through a different digital medium. Business Insider reported that 23 percent of millennials get their news primarily from social media and 43.4 percent get their news from smartphones. Such trends indicate that a 2020 hopeful should focus on social media strategy, rather than mainstream media rollouts. An engaging website, a great podcast, and a strong Instagram presence will do more to garner the support of young voters than a televised town hall.

Frequent and direct social media engagement with young voters will also help candidates seeking the millennial vote to create a sense of trust. Yet building this trust is not an easy task. HPOP polling indicates that only 18 percent of young people feel that baby boomer voters care about them and only 16 percent feel that baby boomer elected officials care about them. It therefore seems unlikely that gaining endorsements from senior party members or former politicians will have the same effect on young voters today as it has in past elections.

Given that many of the prominent Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 are baby boomer elected officials, these hopefuls should focus on direct engagement and forward-looking policy solutions to bridge a generational lack of trust. Young voters want political officials who care about them and their interests moving forward. The burden is on each candidate to prove him or herself up to this task.

The Bernie Question

Despite millennials’ large distrust of baby boomers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) garnered the most support from millennials of all 2020 presidential candidates in the HPOP poll, with 31 percent of respondents selecting him as their favorite candidate from the 2020 Democratic field.

So, why Bernie? Polling results indicate that Sanders’s name recognition as a former presidential hopeful and established public trust may be helping him overcome the massive age gap between himself and young voters. Yet these factors alone cannot explain the outpouring of support for Sanders. Former Vice President Joe Biden has just as much, if not more, name recognition as Sanders, and is popular for his work with Barack Obama, who left office with a favorability rating of 73 percent among millennials. Nonetheless, Biden trails Sanders by 11 percent among millennial voters.

What sets Sanders apart from Biden and other Democratic hopefuls in part is his ability to communicate his forward-thinking policy solutions to young Democratic voters directly through social media. Sanders boasts 9.2 million followers on his personal Twitter account. Even Biden pales in comparison, with just 3.4 million followers. Sanders’s Twitter is focused on his policies. Rather than constantly tweeting about recent campaign appearances, Sanders is tweeting endearing videos of youth activism, support for national unity against the “billionaire class,” and an introduction to his new podcast. On most days, Sanders tweets upwards of 10 times, demonstrating a desire to listen to and engage with young supporters.

It is clear that Sanders is overcoming the age gap with millennial voters by making concerted efforts at relatability. He speaks the language of tech-savvy millennials and understands the kind of policy-driven content they want to see. Most importantly, Sanders is overcoming distrust in baby boomers by setting himself apart from the rest of his cohort. Sanders openly speaks out against baby boomer-era projects, such as nuclear proliferation and foreign wars. He expresses genuine care for the future, even if it is a future that he will not likely experience himself, prioritizing policies like affordable housing, education, support for unions, and infrastructure development.

Democratic candidates who aim to capture the youth vote should focus on similar future-first policies to set themselves apart from their predecessors, who are largely distrusted by young voters. Millennials are seeking candidates who will be their political advocates and allies, holding strong to their political convictions rather than pandering to seem more electable. For Democratic candidates to win the youth vote in 2020 and beyond, it is clear that hopefuls should be like Bernie: relatable, communicative, and invested in the future.

This article is part of a series analyzing data from the Harvard Public Opinion Project’s Spring 2019 Youth Poll. Other articles in the series can be found here, and the poll data can be found here.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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