clock menu more-arrow no yes

Millennials love clean energy, fear climate change, and don’t vote. This campaign wants to change that.

millennials
Millennials, this is how stock art websites view you.
(Shutterstock)

Democrats and climate hawks share a dilemma, and that dilemma is millennials.

Millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000, give or take, depending on your definition — are, in many ways, an incredibly attractive political target. There's a lot of them, they lean Democrat, they are more concerned about climate change than older cohorts, and they absolutely love clean energy.

The problem is, too few of them vote. "Between 1964 and 2012," writes Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, "youth voter turnout in presidential elections has fallen below 50 percent, and Baby Boomers now outvote their children's generation by a stunning 30 percentage points." It's even worse in midterm elections.

Now, eco-billionaire Tom Steyer is going to put some of his money toward changing that. His Super PAC, NextGen Climate, is launching a $25 million "national campaign to register and mobilize young voters in seven key battleground states to help elect climate champions to the White House and the Senate this fall."

millennials, walking
Youths, youthing.
(Paul Bradbury/Getty Images)

NextGen has released a strategy memo that outlines the rationale for their campaign. It contains all sorts of enlightening #MillennialFacts, which I will share with you now.

Millennials are numerous

In 2008, there were twice as many boomers eligible to vote as millennials. And there were three times more actual boomer votes cast.

That's changing. Millennial voter registration has almost tripled since then.

millennial voter registration (PNA)

In 2016, for the first time, millennials will be as large a share of the eligible voting population as boomers, roughly 30 percent. That said, boomers are still expected to outvote millennials this year.

But by 2020, millennials will outnumber boomers 34 to 28 percent, and cast more actual ballots. (These numbers are from the States of Change project; more here from Ron Brownstein.)

In this year's election, NextGen is zeroing in on millennials in presidential swing states, where they're a particularly significant voting block:

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) calculates Youth Electoral Significance (YESI) scores for each state based on several factors including relative share of youth population, number of colleges, young voter turnout in past elections, historical differences in youth vote choice, expected competitiveness of the race, and laws designed to increase voter registration.

YES! scores show that the youth vote is particularly salient in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — states NextGen is targeting. If recent history is any guide, a swing of a few percentage points in the millennial vote could shift senatorial and presidential elections in those states.

Millennials support climate change solutions

The polling evidence on this score is copious. Let's review. Quotes are from NextGen.

  • ABC News/Washington Post, November 2015: "76 percent of 18‐29 year olds say climate change is a serious problem facing America, with 63 percent calling it a very serious problem. That concern is matched by a desire for action: 64 percent say the federal government should do more to address climate change."
  • Hart Research for NextGen, June 2015: "74 percent of Millennials favor the goal of transitioning to at least 50 percent clean energy by 2030, with only 3 percent opposed—slightly better than the goal’s 70 percent support among all voters. … Millennials see strong benefits from this transition to clean energy, with large majorities saying it would have a positive effect on climate change, health, energy independence, jobs, and the economy overall."
  • Ipos, for Rock the Vote/USA Today, June 2015: "80 percent of Millennials agree that America should transition to 'mostly clean or renewable energy by 2030.' Less than half of Millennials thought the United States should 'continue to develop fossil fuel resources'; 78 percent thought 'the government should regulate industry to protect air and water.'"
  • Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Democracy Corps, October 2014:
democracy corps poll (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Democracy Corps)
  • Harstad, April 2014: "79 percent of Millennials favor reducing carbon pollution to deal with climate change; 76 percent think the government should be more involved in protecting the environment from pollution; and 69 percent think the government should be more involved in addressing climate change."

I could go on. Polling on this has been consistent for many years: millennials are enthusiastic about the need for carbon regulations and the promise of clean energy.

American attitudes on climate change are shifting

All this is happening in a larger context. Last month, Gallup polling found concern over climate change at an eight-year high (up roughly to where it was in 1990, sigh):

gallup climate poll (Gallup)

Perhaps more notably, it also found a sharp uptick in those who acknowledge that human beings are the primary cause of climate change:

gallup climate poll (Gallup)

(FiveThirtyEight has more on the Gallup numbers.)

What explains the uptick? It's hard to know for sure, but my guess is some combination of a) weird weather, b) the Pope's encyclical, and c) the Paris climate deal, all of which were heavily covered by the media. Each of those stories serves to lift climate change out of the context of US politics, where it is seen as just another partisan squabble, and into a larger global context.

Recent polling from Yale and George Mason University found that political support on climate change stretches across the aisle, except to the far right:

A poll showing Americans’ willingness to support a presidential candidate who strongly supports climate action. YPCCC

Clean energy is a potential wedge issue for Democrats

Beyond climate change, and perhaps more salient in political terms, Americans love clean energy. It is one of the few political phenomena in the US today with an almost entirely positive image, among everyone but the far right.

Here's what the Yale polling found on support for climate solutions:

• Funding more research into renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power (84 percent of all registered voters, 91 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents, and 75 percent of Republicans).

• Providing tax rebates to people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (81 percent of all registered voters, 91 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of independents, and 70 percent of Republicans).

• Regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (75 percent of all registered voters, 88 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 61 percent of Republicans).

• Requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes such as income taxes by an equal amount (68 percent of all registered voters, 86 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of independents, and 47 percent of Republicans).

This suggests, as I've argued many times, that climate solutions are a potential wedge issue for Democrats.

Older Republicans (who constitute much of that party's most active base) are on the wrong side of this issue, and they've got GOP officeholders trapped on the wrong side as well. But young Republicans love clean energy and are not nearly as averse to carbon regulations as their representatives' behavior would lead you to believe.

If they're savvy about it, Democrats could use clean energy to divide younger from older Republicans.

The problem with all this is that voter sentiment on climate and clean energy is broadly positive, but it lacks intensity — it's easily swept away by other concerns. There are reasons to think millennials prioritize climate and clean energy somewhat higher than other demographics, but even for them, the economy, health care, and affordable education come first. Very few voters, including millennials, list these issues in their top tier of concerns.

So NextGen is setting out to do two things. One, they want to raise the salience of climate/energy with millennial voters, to increase that intensity. This can be done by tying it to more salient issues. For instance, one commonality across all polling of millennials is that they are obsessed with authenticity and disgusted by what they see as the corruption of politics. Insofar as climate/energy can be tied to the nefarious corrupting influence of fossil fuel companies (millennials hate Big Oil), or to economic growth and health, it can play a larger role in their voting choices.

And second, NextGen wants them to actually vote, so it's trying to get them registered. (Whether they will actually turn out remains a big unknown.)

The passion and energy of young people, particularly around the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, is a potentially potent electoral force. NextGen is trying to translate some of that potential energy to kinetic energy (as it were).

It will be interesting to see if it has any effect.