Clinton’s Biggest Challenge: Getting Millennials Off the Couch

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Millennials are the Obama-coalition members least likely to see themselves as Clinton supporters.Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

One of Hillary Clinton’s most important objectives in the late stages of the presidential campaign is to boost her standing among the young voters who were a mainstay of the Obama coalition, but who have been cool to Clinton. According to Jeff Stein at Vox, there is some (admittedly limited) evidence her performance in the first candidate debate helped her among millennials.

It’s not that she took millennial votes away from Donald Trump. He doesn’t have many. As Harvard’s John Della Volpe, who conducted a debate-night focus group of young voters, told Stein: “The millennial vote isn’t Hillary versus Trump … It’s Hillary versus Gary Johnson versus sitting on the couch on Election Day.”

So Clinton’s appeal to these voters needs to be multidimensional: She must reduce the antipathy toward her from young Sanders supporters and those whose knowledge of her is limited to media characterizations, while convincing them this is a close contest whose outcome will have a big impact on the world millennials will soon inherit.

It seems she made some headway on the first challenge. 

“She wasn’t the caricature her foes and the media had created of her,” Della Volpe says, summarizing what his interview subjects told him about their reactions to the debate. “I think in the eyes of millennials, she comported herself well in tone and substance. My sense was that they are beginning to take a fresh look at her.”

Still, only 20 percent of Della Volpe’s focus-group participants said the debate made them more likely to vote for Clinton (10 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Trump). And it’s unclear how many of them were sufficiently horrified by Trump to develop the sense that voting against him is worth the effort. As I noted immediately after the debate, there’s even the perverse possibility that all the talk about Clinton “crushing” or “destroying” Trump at Hofstra could enhance the belief that she’s already won the election, making a “protest vote” for Johnson or Stein or nonparticipation a consequences-free action in the eyes of millennials who have meh feelings about Clinton.

Some targeted messaging to millennials stressing some of Trump’s more horrific positions — his climate-change denialism, for example, or his support for torture, or his casual attitude about nuclear weaponry — and hinting that he’s within reach of total power, might be advisable. And she does have an emergency fall-back option in the fight for millennial votes: coming out squarely for marijuana legalization.

She could also perhaps find ways to remind people that Gary Johnson’s Libertarians would be perfectly happy with privatizing not just prisons, but pretty much every government function short of raising an army. Indeed, some of Clinton’s allies are already on the job:

NextGen Climate, the group run by liberal billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer, is on the ground in eight battleground states with a message that is almost exclusively aimed at reaching the millennial voters who are energized by the issue of climate change.

Last week, the group threw six figures behind digital ads mocking Johnson as a climate change denier and warning millennials that climate change will cost them trillions of dollars.

Beyond those messaging tweaks, it would be smart for Team Clinton to systematically tamp down the triumphalism as Election Day approaches, and instead create and sustain a sense of urgency, even anxiety. The contest is clearly turning into a mobilization battle, and anything the Clinton campaign can do to maintain a healthy fear of the opposition will make minor-party candidacies, or the couch, a less tempting option for millennials and for others voters who wouldn’t for a moment consciously contribute to the election of Donald Trump.