Hillary Clinton’s problem with young voters has been a puzzle campaign experts and pundits have tried to untangle since voting in the Democratic primary began.
The debate kicked up again this weekend after hacked audio published by the Intercept and the Washington Free Beacon captured Clinton trying to explain to donors at a closed-door fundraiser why millennials have been so lukewarm to her candidacy. (Depending on which poll you look at, Clinton is still running anywhere from 15 to close to 30 points behind Barack Obama among the youngest voting bloc, with upward of 40 percent of them defecting to third parties.)
“There’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free health care ... and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means,” Clinton says in the audio from a meeting this February. “And half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”
She went on to say that many of Bernie Sanders’s supporters were frustrated “children of the Great Recession” forced to live in their parents’ basement.
A furious fight then ensued over whether Clinton had “smeared” Sanders’s supporters in her remarks. (Donald Trump says so; Sanders himself says she hadn’t.) But largely missed in the uproar was the actual reason researchers say young people are skeptical of Clinton: They despise both Wall Street and Washington, and they see Clinton as enmeshed in both.
“She’s been part of the establishment for the entire lifetime of millennials — an establishment represented by their government as well as Wall Street,” says John Della Volpe, a Harvard researcher who has closely tracked young voters’ political beliefs for decades. "And nearly every data point from our polling indicates that the relationship between government and millennials is fractured.”
Millennials fear and despise Wall Street — and they don’t trust Hillary Clinton to tame it
Many millennials certainly want to get a job on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs received a quarter-million job applications from college grads last year. (Some new recruits apparently don’t mind the reported 90-hour workweeks.)
But if anything is clear about millennials, it’s that the vast majority of the rest of their generation mostly has contempt for Wall Street.
Just 11 percent of young people trust Wall Street to “do the right thing,” according to polling from the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP). (That number is closer to about 30 percent for the public overall.) Huge majorities say they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who isn’t tough enough on Wall Street even if that candidate agrees with them on every other issue, according to HIOP.
Millennials are also the age group least likely to say they strongly oppose Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 protest movement that called on bankers to be jailed. Some polling from YouGov suggests they’re the most likely to believe in increased financial regulation of the big banks.
Clinton seems to have inherited that backlash. Perhaps that’s because of the six-figure speaking fees she collected from some of the biggest financial institutions after leaving the State Department — something Sanders never tired of pointing out during the primary. Maybe it’s because of the role her husband’s administration played in repealing the Glass-Steagall, a move that contributed to the financial crisis.
Whatever it was, something has stuck. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias points out, Gallup polling published last week puts Clinton ahead of Donald Trump among young people on all but one key issue: government regulation of Wall Street and the big banks.
At the beginning of the primary, only half of young Democrats thought Clinton could be trusted to “take on Wall Street.” (Far more than that said she was ready to win the presidency and trusted her to handle foreign policy.)
In the country overall, about 60 percent of voters think Clinton should release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches. But about 80 percent of voters ages 18 to 30 thought she should do so, according to GenForward polling:
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has long called Goldman Sachs the “great vampire squid.” And it seems like young people are getting a whiff of it from Hillary Clinton.
"Clinton’s connections to these traditional sources of institutional power are the huge negative [of her negatives with] young voters," says Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at Harvard and author of a major new report about young voters’ politics.
Young people want an “outsider” — and they don’t see Clinton as one
Every generation of young voters starts out ready to throw out their elder statesmen — eager to usher out the old and herald in the new.
But this cohort is more likely than any in modern American history to reject both the political parties as too corrupt to serve as trustworthy vehicles for their goals, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, a Tufts University researcher on youth politics at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
For instance, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in the number of young people registered as either Democrat or Republican — a trend that’s only accelerated this year, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg. Young voters are more than 10 points likely to call themselves political independents than any other generation. And an alarmingly small percentage of millennials say they’re interested in running for office, two political scientists have found.
But young people’s mistrust of both political parties appears rooted in something deeper: a view that American government is itself hopelessly corrupted.
Just one in four young Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing, according to Della Volpe. In a 2013 research paper, University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Delli Carpini found that millennials are more likely to think the government is corrupt than any other generation.
“Young adults under the age of thirty are significantly more likely than those over thirty to say that government is run by special interests (and) that public officials don’t care about average citizens,” Delli Carpini wrote.
It’s no surprise that Clinton would have difficulty claiming the mantle of an outsider ready to shake up a broken government. She’s had a high-profile place in public life since before Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s. Few politicians in America have been tied to the government in such a prominent way for so long.
Of course, Bernie Sanders was also in Congress for three decades. But he largely escaped the affiliation with Washington by embracing the “democratic socialist” label and distancing himself from the Democratic Party, Kawashima-Ginsberg says. Similarly, despite his two terms as president, young people also continue to see Barack Obama as a relative outsider, continuing to say he’s relatable and tells the truth, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg.
“Young people are looking for anybody but an establishment candidate,” she says. “They’re looking for a completely radically different way of running the government. They may not know what that looks like. But what we know is they’re really frustrated toward the government and the idea of voting.”
How does Clinton fix this?
Some writers who can’t stomach Clinton have offered a competing explanation for why young voters don’t like her: They’re simply more liberal than she is, and thus share different policy goals. If Clinton had just embraced Sanders-style calls for universal health care and free college tuition, this line of thinking goes, she’d help erase her “millennial problem.”
In Newsweek, for instance, Emmett Rensin argued that young people don’t like Clinton because she isn’t as left-wing as they are on questions of health care, military adventurism, and environmental regulation. “Many younger American voters, perhaps a sufficient number of them to seriously imperil Clinton’s chances, have significant ideological differences with the candidate,” Rensin says.
There really is something to this argument, according to the researchers I interviewed. They pointed to polls showing that millennials are very likely to believe climate change is a serious threat requiring government action. Some polls have found that they have more somewhat more favorable views of socialism than capitalism. They really are much more skeptical of foreign intervention than their elders.
“Young people are more liberal on the environment and prioritize it to a greater degree than Hillary. Young people are also devoutly not hawkish — they not only disagree with Clinton over foreign policy but feel very strongly about those positions,” Rogowski said.
But the experts I spoke with pointed to the limits of this explanation as well. After all, why would some former Sanders supporters be flocking to Libertarian Gary Johnson, who wants much less government, if socialized medicine were their top priority? Why would Clinton’s millennial numbers sag while she’s embraced a more and more progressive policy agenda? Why would young people embrace Johnson over Green Party candidate Jill Stein if carbon pricing were their top concern?
Instead, Clinton’s ongoing struggles with young voters make more sense as a function of her perceived coziness with Wall Street and Washington.
Clinton could do more to shake that image. For example, she hasn’t given back the $650,000 Goldman Sachs gave her for a couple of speeches (or released the transcripts of what she said during those speeches). She’s spent time on the campaign trail with former Bush administration officials and has courted ultra-wealthy megadonors. She was far behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren in demanding that Wells Fargo be held accountable for its millions of fraudulent bank accounts — and she still hasn’t matched Warren’s demand for the bank to be broken up. Clinton’s Super PAC continues to take big campaign donations from millionaires and corporations. Fair or not, the campaign coverage has been dominated by insinuations that her husband’s foundation traded government access for private donations.
Young people dislike Clinton primarily because they dislike Wall Street and Washington. Instead of unveiling her new “squad goals” to sound hip, or trotting out celebrity endorsements, perhaps Clinton should start going after them with the fiery denunciations young people think they deserve.