In late September and early October, as Hillary Clinton was pulling ahead to a six-point lead over Donald Trump, a handful of polls were released that ostensibly found that millennial voters lack enthusiasm for her candidacy. Fewer said they were likely to vote this year than in the past couple of elections, and many more of those who did plan to vote told pollsters that they’d support a third-party candidate this year than in past cycles.
Among young people who say they’ll vote for a major-party candidate, Hillary Clinton is crushing Donald Trump. In some polls, she leads among millennials by a larger margin than they favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012.
But perhaps weary of covering Trump’s inanities, and facing a relatively stable race, pundits rushed to analyze Hillary Clinton’s “millennial problem.” At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait blamed Bernie Sanders, and Brian Beutler argued in the New Republic that older liberals had failed to “teach millennials about the horror of George W. Bush.” Meanwhile, some millennial writers projected their own political preferences onto their entire generation. At Newsweek, Emmett Rensin wrote that it’s maddeningly simple: “young voters are reluctant to support a candidate who does not represent their policy preferences.” And at The American Prospect, David Atkins, who has long complained that the Obama administration hasn’t been “bold” enough in its approach to tackling major issues, wrote that Clinton’s problem is that younger voters see her as “a protector of President Obama’s legacy” and, while they have a positive view of the president, they “have found the Obama administration too tepid in its approach to tackling major issues.”
What’s really going on here is simply a reversion to the mean. Clinton’s “millennial problem” is based entirely on comparisons with young voters’ enthusiasm for Barack Obama. But Obama’s candidacy was unique, and singularly exciting for a generation that values diversity. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, explains that “this is the age cohort that typically has the lowest level of turnout, and they’re the hardest ones to mobilize. Obama was a special person in the sense that he was the first African-American, and he was stylistically closer to that generation than Hillary Clinton is. The identification they might have with someone who is as exciting and interesting as Obama doesn’t work as well with Hillary Clinton.”