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Here's Why Hillary Clinton's Troubles Aren't Millennials' Fault

There is a lot of generational shaming going around this election season, and it's not all entirely accurate, so we're here with a handy Millennial FAQ to answer your questions about this much discussed generation — as well as what role it has played this campaign and could play on Tuesday night.

First, who are millennials?

There are different definitions of millennials. But broadly speaking, it's a label for people in their 20s into their early 30s.

The Pew Research Center defines this generation as people born after 1980.

The Census Bureau has slightly more limiting parameters that refer to people born between 1982 and 2000.

How many millennials are there?

Millennials are the largest generation in the country. With an estimated population of 83.1 million, the Census Bureau says they now outnumber baby boomers. And this November, millennials are expected to rival boomers as a potential political force — each generation makes up about 31 percent of the electorate.

OK, so, in theory, they have a lot of political power, but I always hear they don't vote?

In 2008 and 2012, young voters were an important part of Barack Obama's winning coalition. 2008, in particular, was a high-water mark for young voter turnout. Fifty-one percent voted that year, according to an analysis of census data by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

But for all the talk about how critical young voters were to Obama's re-election, it's worth pointing out that young folks (ages 18-29) actually participated at a lower rate in 2012 than in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry.

Still, one stat is undeniably true — in all those presidential elections, young voters still had the lowest voter turnout of any age group.

But that's not unique to millennials as a generation. In fact, millennials don't seem to be substantially less likely to vote than baby boomers or Gen Xers (when they were young).

A basic truism in electoral politics is that young people across generations are consistently less likely to vote when they're young.

Researchers at CIRCLE compared voter turnout with voter experience.

They began by looking at the first presidential election in which the entire 18- to 24-year-old cohort of each generation was eligible to vote, and found only minor differences.

For boomers, that would be 1972 (which, we should point out, is a bit of an anomaly because it was the first time 18-year-olds had the right to vote). For Gen X, it was 1992, and for millennials, it was 2008.

And you'll notice in this graph that millennials actually turned out to vote in 2012 at a higher rate than Gen Xers when they were young.

In fact, the group Rock the Vote was created in 1989, specifically to engage the disenchanted young voters of a previous generation.

How important are young voters for Hillary Clinton's strategy?

Clinton is trying to re-create the Obama coalition to win the White House. Obama relied heavily on people of color, women and young voters. No doubt millennials are a part of Clinton's strategy, and we've reported previously on how the campaign is specifically trying to woo some of these millennial skeptics who overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

At this point, all the polls show Clinton with a substantial edge over Trump among voters under the age of 35. If we average two recent millennial-specific surveys, the Harvard Institute of Politics fall poll and the most recent GenForward survey, Clinton leads Trump by roughly 28 percentage points. So the question isn't will young folks vote for Clinton — it's how many will vote for her?

Turnout is key. And analysts wonder, will millennial turnout be lower this year? It's plausible. After all, Clinton was not the first choice for millennials. And a New York Times analysis of early-voting data shows she could have some trouble. The Times looked at 13 states where early voting is already underway and found young voter turnout (between ages 18 and 29) this year compared with 2012 had decreased in 12 of those states and increased in only one — Colorado.

There are no doubt young voters who are engaged politically but don't want to vote for president. We've talked about this factor in Ohio, among young African-American activists.

I also hear a lot of young voters are going to vote for a third-party candidate?

To be clear, Clinton is winning a lot of millennial voters. She leads Trump in every poll. But she is not yet polling at Obama levels (he won 60 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 in the last election).

And third-party candidates seem to explain part of the story.

The libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is consistently polling in the double digits. And Green Party nominee Jill Stein is also polling better with younger voters than with any other age group. (Stein, in particular, appeals to young voters who worry Clinton is not as progressive as they are.)

Collectively, that's not good news for Clinton.

But the strength of third-party candidates is also bad news for Trump. About 30 percent of young voters self-identify as conservatives, and many of them would have gladly voted for John Kasich or Marco Rubio but now say they would rather support Johnson over Trump.

If Clinton is underperforming Obama, Trump is in a similar position — he is underperforming Romney, who won 37 percent of millennial voters in 2012. Trump consistently struggles to capture even 30 percent. And that's particularly problematic when you look at young white voters. In 2012, Romney actually won white millennials as a voting bloc — they preferred him over Obama (51 percent to 44 percent). But this year, they seem to be trending more toward the Democratic nominee.

So, yes, Clinton is currently underperforming Obama — she is currently polling at least 10 percentage points behind Obama. But Trump is also behind.

So are millennials the reason this race is so tight for Clinton?

It's all relative. Young voters are key, no doubt. They're particularly important for a Democratic candidate like Clinton who is trying to replicate Obama's winning coalition. But if you look at polling across different generations, you'll see millennials are already Clinton's most loyal supporters (by double digits). It's actually baby boomers (and the Silent Generation) who are overwhelmingly supporting Trump. So the generational blame game has its limits.

Clinton's real problem is that she is losing white working-class voters in ways that even Obama didn't. Iowa is a good case in point. If you look at exit polls from 2008, Obama won working-class voters in Iowa by 6 percentage points (he lost them by 18 percentage points nationally that year). The point is that, in some key states like Iowa, Florida and Ohio, Clinton seems to be doing worse with white voters than Obama ever did. And that's a major part of her problem because many of these white voters are older and more likely to vote than millennials anyhow.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story said low voter turnout was unique to millennials as a generation. It is not.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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