Will Millennials Save Democrats in 2018?

Young voters don’t like Donald Trump, his party, or his policies. But they also don’t like voting in non-presidential elections. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The darkest cloud threatening what should be a sunny Democratic Election Day in 2018 is the donkey party’s recent dependence on elements of the electorate — minorities and millennials — who tend to be a smaller share of the electorate in non-presidential elections. Democrats’ “midterm falloff” problem is sometimes misdiagnosed as an “enthusiasm” issue: While “enthusiasm” can matter significantly on the margins, the bigger problem is simply that younger and minority voters have never participated in midterms as much as their older and whiter counterparts, and they now play a bigger role in the Democratic coalition than ever. This heavy dependence on “falloff” voters is pretty recent in its intensity: Last time Democrats won back the House from Republicans, in 2006, they carried the senior vote. That is almost certainly not going to happen in 2018.

So as Ron Brownstein explains, one part of the 2018 puzzle for Democrats is taking advantage of millennial antipathy to Donald Trump to get these most falloff-prone of voters to show up at the polls:

The challenge is especially urgent for Democrats because Trump divides younger and older Americans so sharply. Though Trump showed strength among blue-collar white Millennials, he carried just 36 percent of young people overall last November. Polls show he’s lost ground since. Both the CNN/ORC and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys released last week found his approval rating among adults aged 18 to 34—almost exactly the Millennial generation’s boundaries—falling below 30 percent. That’s much lower than his ratings among older adults, especially those 50 or older.

Polls have also found that over three-fourths of Millennials oppose both Trump’s Mexico border wall and his push to repeal Obama’s climate-change agenda. Eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, cutting taxes for top earners, barring Syrian refugees—each Trump priorities—all face preponderant Millennial opposition in surveys.

More to the point, early congressional generic balloting shows millennials demonstrating the kind of Democratic preference the party needs, assuming they can get these voters to the polls:

Millennials said they preferred Democrats for Congress by crushing margins of nearly 30 percentage points in both the NBC/Wall Street Journal and CNN/ORC surveys. That’s more than double the party’s advantage among younger voters in NBC/Wall Street Journal polls from 2010 and 2014. By contrast, Americans 35 years old or more divide exactly evenly between the parties on that ballot test in the CNN/ORC survey and slightly prefer Republicans in the other.

Eventually, the overall growth of the millennial population will make this demographic category dominant no matter how much it does or doesn’t turn out. But for 2018, something more is needed.

One answer Democrats are offering is to recruit millennial candidates:

Two young Democratic operatives have approached the problem from the supply side by forming an organization called Run for Something that assists progressive Millennials seeking state or local office. Amanda Litman, the group’s co-founder, said it is building a network of campaign consultants and donors to help young candidates for offices from school board to state legislatures; it has already advanced about 800 potential candidates past its initial screening process.

But there is a surprisingly underwhelming estimate of millennial turnout from a high-profile election this year featuring a millennial candidate and all the money and enthusiasm in the world: the special election in the sixth district of Georgia. Nate Cohn ran the numbers the day after the first-round election on April 18:

The electorate was almost exactly as old and white as would be expected in a normal midterm electorate. This is not surprising — there is no recent precedent for a strong turnout among young and nonwhite voters in midterm elections. But this sort of pattern would hamper Democrats in relatively diverse districts where they depend more on nonwhite voters, like those in Southern and Central California, South Florida and Texas.

Democrats did turn out a higher percentage of their millennial voters for Jon Ossoff than Republicans turned out for their candidates. But his strong performance owed more to a higher share of older white voters than to any triumph over the “midterm falloff.”

So the challenge persists heading toward 2018. In the end a vote is a vote, and Democrats can claw back a lot of congressional seats through a combination of relatively small improvements among 2016 Trump voters, 2016 congressional Republican voters, and stay-at-home-prone Democratic millennials and minorities. But figuring out what makes millennials vote in proportionate numbers would be priceless.

Democrats’ 2018 Millennial Turnout Challenge