Pundits were quick to point out that the percentage of Millennial voters (those 29 and younger ) in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last week were roughly half of what they were in 2008. This led the voice of what passes for wisdom inside the Beltway, Charlie Cook, to proclaim, “we knew that young and minority voters who had never cast a ballot before they did for Barack Obama last year were very unlikely to show up at the polls this year or next.”
His extrapolation of two state’s unique odd year election results into a guaranteed outcome in the 2010 general election is breathtaking for what it reveals about Cook’s own biases and those of his peers. It’s reminiscent of James Carville’s comments prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 primary triumph that “we have a word in politics for those who are counting on the youth vote to win. We call them losers.” But at least Carville saw the light after looking at the surge in young voters for Democrats in 2008 and recognizing that a new generation, with different attitudes toward political participation than the preceding generation, Generation X, had arrived in the American electorate.
Unfortunately, too many of those operating as if the world didn’t change in 2008 are Democrats, whose misreading of last week’s results could cost the party dearly in 2010. The two gubernatorial losses cannot simply be dismissed, as the White House tried to do, as merely a reflection of circumstances unique to New Jersey and Virginia, unrelated to national campaign strategy. In reality, the 2009 election returns once again demonstrated the importance of aligning all four Ms of political campaigns--Messenger, Message, Media and Money—with Millennial Generation attitudes and behavior if any campaign, Democrat or Republican, hopes to be as successful in winning the votes of young people as Barack Obama was in 2008.
A year ago Obama won 60% of the vote in Virginia among 18-29 year olds. In New Jersey his margin was even greater, 67%. Even after taking into account Obama’s overwhelming support among minorities and considering only white Millennials, the appeal of this particular messenger to this cohort is clear. Nationally, Obama won 54% of all white Millennial Generation voters. He won 42% of white Millennials in Virginia, reflecting that Southern state’s relatively conservative views. But even this was well above the support Obama received from older white voters. He also carried 58% of New Jersey white Millennials, reflecting the overall partisan and ideological orientation of that state.
Neither Democratic gubernatorial candidate in last week’s election had a biography that matched the bi-racial, community organizer, outsider image of the President. Jon Corzine’s Wall Street riches and political insider image hardly matches the selfless, socially concerned profile of Obama. Corzine’s lesser appeal to Millennials is partially a reflection of that difference. While Millennials were the only generational cohort to prefer Corzine over the Republican winner, Chris Christie, Corzine’s support fell to 57% among all Millennials and 42% among white Millennials. Coupled with the decline in the Millennial Generation’s contribution to the electorate, from 17% to 9%, even this level of support wasn’t enough to re-elect Corzine.
Creigh Deeds’ bio was even less like Obama’s, with a political career focused on playing the inside game in the State Capitol and appealing to the good old boys in rural Virginia. This was one reason he became one of the first Democrats to actually lose the Millennial vote to a Republican, 44% for Deeds vs. 54% for McDonnell. And despite his focus on attempting to win over more conservative Democrats, Deeds actually lost white Millennials to McDonnell by 2:1 margin.
But the President’s appeal to Millennials went beyond his unique personal qualities. He also had a message that helped engage and motivate young people from its overall theme of change to his specific call to help young people pay for college by expanding opportunities to serve their community. By contrast, Corzine’s record contained nothing that was particularly appealing to Millennials. And Deeds’ attempt to run a campaign based on social issues ran directly counter to the Millennial Generation’s greater interest in pressing economic issues like jobs. McDonnell’s campaign, by contrast was focused like a laser, as President Bill Clinton used to say, on the state’s need to improve economic opportunity for all of its citizens.
Still, having the right messenger and message will not win over Millennials unless a campaign reaches out to them by using the media to which they pay attention, expending sufficient resources to break through the daily chatter that is also a part of the generation’s unique behavior. Corzine certainly spent plenty of his personal money on his campaign, but most of that money was devoted to television commercials, the least effective way to reach Millennials. By contrast, in Virginia, McDonnell used the Internet extensively, including a major Google ad buy late in the campaign, to make sure his message of social issue moderation and economic opportunity was heard by Millennials.
There are many things that are different about this newest generation of Americans. At this point, Millennials identify as Democrats by nearly 2:1 and are the first generation in forty years to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. Millennials are positioned to make the Democrats the majority party for decades. But Democrats cannot take them for granted because in one very fundamental way Millennials are no different than any older generation.
Like all voters, Millennials are more likely to participate in elections and vote for candidates who appeal to their concerns with a convincing and credible message that is heard often enough to make an impact. Democrats should take a lesson from their President’s successful campaign in 2008 that used that formula to win two out of three Millennial votes. Or, they could spend some more time analyzing and explaining away last week’s two gubernatorial defeats only to discover that Republicans have already completed their analysis and are ready to launch a campaign with just the right four Ms to appeal to Millennials and give the GOP victory in 2010.