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Is it Hillary Clinton’s fault that millennials aren’t getting her message?

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Will a large enough segment of the millennials who turned out to vote for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries and caucuses be willing to vote for Hillary Clinton in November? Has Clinton done enough to reach out to Bernie millennials, many of whom took to the streets of Philadelphia to express their massive disappointment and anger with their candidate’s defeat? Or were those who freaked out and cursed millennials at the news in Thursday’s New York Times/CBS poll which showed the election being divided four ways among younger voters — with a third of them voting for either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson — reacting to a big nothing?

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Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was running to be the first black man elected as president of the United States, his campaign was credited with building a coalition that comprised, according to the NY Times, the “majorities of women, independent voters, political moderates, Hispanics, African-Americans, people of most income groups and education levels and voters under age 45.”  But, going into the convention, only 57% of 18-29 year-old voters had favorable views of Clinton. The debate about whether she has been effective in reaching out to younger voters began that night.

When Obama ran in 2008, he ran on a campaign that emphasized “hope” and “change.” While self-professed pitbull Sarah Palin used to openly mock the concepts of hope and change, those words resonated with the young. In 2008, 75% of those who voted for Obama said the country was on the wrong track, and 90% thought the economy was in bad shape. Even though they acknowledged that McCain was the more experienced candidate, they opted for Obama’s message, which emphasized positivity and as Michelle Obama recently described it in Philadelphia, “going high when they go low.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, Hillary Clinton is not associated with change. She is perceived as the candidate who will continue to govern as Obama has governed, which nets her a mixed result. Older millennials (25-35) prefer Clinton to Trump, and younger millennials approve of Obama’s performance as president. But at this point in time, while their margin of support for Clinton over Trump is still 13 points, it’s the smallest margin of the groups who are supporting Clinton. The youngest millennials are more likely to be undecided or voting for a third party candidate.

Arguments as to why Clinton is not generating as much enthusiasm as Obama did range from the pop cultural — that Clinton asked the too-commercial Katy Perry to perform as a means of attracting youth, when the vibe around the Bernie supporters was more original “I Kissed a Girl” Jill Sobule and the artists associated with “My Song is My Weapon” — to the lack of emphasis on issues that are having particular impacts on millennials.

Of these, perhaps none is more pressing to new college graduates than student loan burdens. Data published in 2015 is sobering.

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Seven in 10 seniors (69%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower. Over the last decade—from 2004 to 2014—the share of graduates with debt rose modestly (from 65% to 69%) while average debt at graduation rose at more than twice the rate of inflation. (emphasis added)

Seven out of ten graduates of nonprofit colleges are leaving college with debt that they have to start paying back less than a year after graduation. Starting salaries for new college grads varying widely, but for many graduates, before they can even begin saving for a house (and housing prices are so far out of reach for those starting salaries that it’s almost a moot point) those loan payments are significant enough to affect quality of life issues. But the average salary out of college is around $50,000, and the average cost of a new house in July 2015 was $295,000. Those numbers are clearly incompatible. How do you sell hope to a generation that can only see college debt and never being able to own a home in their future?

One of Bernie Sanders’ most popular proposals was his plan to make college “tuition free and debt free.” While there was some mocking of the proposal as “pie in the sky,” for a lot of desperate college students, it represented some relief from the impending burden of debt, or the debt that recent graduates had found themselves under. Even as a college professor, I had witnessed a change. In the early 2000s, I was used to dealing with seniors who couldn’t wait to graduate and get out into the world. In the last few semesters I taught, up until December, 2015, I dealt with increasing numbers of second-semester juniors and older students who came to me to talk about their fear of graduating, and how much they were dreading having to leave school. For many, the fear was that student loan payments would force them to live with their parents because they would not be able to afford rent.

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You would think that Hillary Clinton is not offering any kind of debt relief to students. But she is. On her campaign website, she offers students and current student loan holders a tool to show them how much money they will save with Clinton’s plan for ameliorating student loan debt. But in her campaign economic speeches, while she makes reference to making college debt-free for middle class families, she has pitched much of her economic message at the “working class” that the media insists Donald Trump has turned himself into a champion of. And when Clinton suggests that not all young people should “have to go to college” to get the types of good-paying jobs that the unions were able to demand in manufacturing before the manufacturing base was gutted by right-to-work laws and moving factories overseas, that message is not being delivered to the millennials who might get enthused about it.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement breaks down the millennial vote on ethnic and gender lines, and finds that Clinton polls higher among women and people of color in millennial age groups. But they point to voter turnout as essential.

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“The youth electorate in recent general elections has been more diverse than this year’s Democratic primary youth electorate, which may benefit Hillary Clinton given her relative strength—and Donald Trump’s significant weakness—with young women and youth of color. Much will depend on how many young people turn out to cast their ballot this November While Secretary Clinton moves into the general election with a large number of young liberal and Democratically inclined potential voters, her campaign has a long way to go to both persuade and mobilize many of these youth.”

The voters who turned out to vote for Obama seemed driven by a sense of mission. They were electing the first black president of the United States, and many expressed a sense that they wanted to be part of history. If she wins, Hillary Clinton will be the first woman president, and yet the enthusiasm, that sense of mission, doesn’t seem to be there. I spoke to two young women, one who had been a Bernie supporter through the primaries, one who had supported Hillary, about what they thought about this upcoming election, and what they saw happening in their dorms.

Both of them agreed that the “excitement” about voting for Hillary doesn’t seem to be there, even if “all of their friends” are voting for Clinton. Caoily Andrews, 19, is a sophomore at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. When Bernie Sanders spoke in downtown Binghamton in April, Andrews was among a large group from her dorm who left the dorm before 5 a.m. to stand in line for Sanders’ 10 a.m. speech. She says that now, all that same group is voting for Clinton because “she’s experienced, and they’d rather a toilet seat be president over Trump.” She says that her dormmates’ excitement for Clinton has “increased since the primaries, but I think people are just really focused on not having Trump for president.” And what does she think is the objection to Donald Trump? “He’s a xenophobic, under qualified, narcissistic, liar,” Andrews says.

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Elise Reynolds, who is also 19, is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She supported Hillary through the primaries. She thinks that Clinton stands for a different approach to politics than Sanders did. “I think a lot of millennials aren’t enthused about Hillary because they haven’t actually taken the time to look into her platform and see what she stands for,” Reynolds says. “When you get into it, you see that her platform does include policies tackling issues that directly concern us, such as debt-free college and campus sexual assault. I also think a lot of millennials struggle with the idea that she’s more of a “within the system” than a “burn down the system” democrat, but in an already fractured political landscape I would argue that incremental change will ultimately be the most effective.”

She also thinks that her cohort have expectations of politicians that someone like Hillary Clinton are just not going to meet:

“Growing up in a media age, I think we have come to see politicians as we see celebrities whose entire lives are/should be accessible to us,” Reynolds says.  “This explains a lot of the success of the Obamas. Hillary is a more traditional politician in the sense that her private life is much more private, and this can make her seem inaccessible and aloof. This may be less off-putting to previous generations, who are used to seeing politicians more as professionals than celebrities.”

So, does this mean that Clinton needs to start playing saxophone on the late night shows, like her husband did on Arsenio Hall? Or do Carpool Karaoke with James Corden the way Michelle Obama recently did? Reynolds thinks it’s up to her peers to do their research, to investigate Hillary’s position for themselves so they can get more enthusiastic on supporting her. Andrews agrees that she needs to do more reading about Hillary’s policies, although she’s committed to voting on Election Day.

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As Clinton’s campaign staff goes forward, it should be asking itself if it has done enough to reach out to millennials, to up the “wow” factor so that they will be excited about voting. It’s not likely that millennials will vote for Trump, but they may stay home.

Bernie and Obama provided a model for how to excite the young crowds. Is there anyone to blame that the level of enthusiasm for Hillary is not approaching those heights?


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