The conventional wisdom about young voters in the 2016 presidential election goes something like this: White millennials are backing third-party candidates in unprecedented numbers, creating a major problem for Hillary Clinton.
It’s a theory that’s driven hundreds of news articles and think pieces. I myself have advanced it in stories here at Vox. Clinton’s campaign appears to be taking the threat seriously.
But Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at Harvard, makes a pretty convincing case that this idea is wrong — or at least vastly overstated. Earlier this week, he and the researchers at GenForward (a partnership between the Black Youth Project and AP-NORC at the University of Chicago) released the most thorough study I’ve seen to date of young voters and the 2016 presidential election.
Its findings suggest that the way we’ve been looking at “Clinton’s millennial problem” is upside down. Contrary to several other pollsters, the researchers found that far fewer young people will actually vote for the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein than has been widely reported. (This isn’t totally surprising, as third-party support historically falls off as we get closer to Election Day.)
Instead, Clinton’s millennial voter problem appears to come from a different source altogether: Young voters of color seem to be far less excited about her than they were about Barack Obama. That trend — rather than a largely imaginary groundswell of support for Johnson and Stein — poses the biggest obstacle to reassembling the Democratic Party’s youth voting bloc in 2016.
New study: The third-party revolution is pretty overhyped
Much of the punditry this election cycle has suggested that young people are poised to overturn politics as usual. The idea is that because they’re fed up with establishment politics and flocking to third parties, millennials are eager to reject the two major political parties and usher in a brave new world in American politics.
These stories aren’t based on nothing. In September, for instance, Quinnipiac released a widely cited poll showing 43 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 plan to vote for a third-party candidate. A New York Times/CBS poll found that the number was right around the 40 percent mark, as did Fox News.
But Rogowski thinks that number is off — by a lot. According to his research, just 15 percent of young voters plan to vote for Stein or Johnson.
What accounts for the huge difference? Part of it is race: Rogowski thinks a lot of the national pollsters don’t collect nearly enough responses from young black and Latino voters. (Around 20 percent of young white people plan to vote for Johnson or Stein, according to Rogowski, compared with closer to 10 percent for most of the young black and Latino groups.) And to undersample voters of color is to risk badly missing young people overall. Millennials are the most diverse voting bloc ever — only 51 percent of them are white, compared with 75 percent for voters over 55.
But race is only a small part of the story here. Even if Rogowski had just looked at young white people, his estimates of third-party support (20 percent) would still be far lower than where the consensus seems to put it for young voters (40 points).
The big conclusion is that the young voter/third party phenomenon is overblown across racial lines. And Rogowski’s data really is better: His team interviewed close to 2,000 millennials, while polls like Quinnipiac’s tend to only sample a few dozen millennials, including a handful of young people of color, making their margins for error much bigger.
“It seems a little crazy to take those numbers at face value,” Rogowski says of the Quinnipiac polls.
His far lower estimate of support for third-party candidates is also much more closely aligned with what we’d expect historically. In 2000, for instance, the Green Party’s Ralph Nader was pulling around 9 percent of voters ages 18 to 29. Rogowski pegs both the current third-party candidates at around 15 percent — obviously a higher number, but also hardly a watershed moment for American politics.
Clinton’s real millennial problem: depressed turnout from young black and Latino voters
But even if Rogowski’s numbers don’t suggest millennials are flocking to Stein and Johnson, they still have very troubling news for team Clinton about these young voters.
This is where the results dramatically diverge from the stories I and others have published about Clinton and millennials. Many of them have suggested that largely white Bernie Sanders supporters account for Clinton’s apparent difficulties with young voters.
“Clinton is still having trouble winning the allegiance of the young, a disproportionate number of whom are backing either Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson,” Harold Myerson wrote at the American Prospect on Thursday. “A hard core of young, white Bernie-or-Busters may yet believe that voting for Stein, or even Johnson, is an expression of their disdain for the system ... it’s more clearly an expression of something quite different: their white skin privilege.”
Rogowski’s data challenges that conclusion. Because he broke down young voters’ preferences by race, Rogowski lets us examine what’s really causing Clinton to run somewhere between 15 and 30 points behind Obama among young voters.
And it’s pretty clearly not white young people defecting to Johnson and Stein. In fact, Clinton is actually doing nearly as well with young whites as Obama did in 2012 — Obama won 43 percent of young white voters against Mitt Romney, and Clinton is set to garner around 41 percent of them, according to Rogowski’s numbers.
You see a much steeper drop in support from Obama to Clinton among young black and Latino voters. In 2012, Obama won 91 percent of the young African-American vote, 88 percent of the Asian-American vote, and 74 percent of the Latino vote. By contrast, Clinton is now pulling just 74 percent of likely African-American voters, 71 percent of the Asian-American vote, and 64 percent of the Latino vote.
Young black people are close to 20 points less likely to vote for Clinton than they were for Obama. And that drop-off clearly isn’t because of Johnson or Stein. The vast bulk of it is because many more are undecided or plan to stay at home — of this group, only around 5 percent support a third-party candidate.
Now, it’d be absurd to say any of these groups bear the blame for helping Donald Trump. Few demographics in America reject Trump more overwhelmingly, and young voters of color remain among the biggest backers of the Democratic nominee.
But if the question is why Clinton isn’t doing as well as Obama did with young voters this time around, there’s just little reason to believe supporters of Stein and Johnson are primarily to blame. Hillary Clinton is still the most popular candidate with young black, Latino, and Asian-American voters. She’s just not quite as popular as Obama was.
Correction: A previous version of this story failed to give appropriate credit for the to the Black Youth Project and AP-NORC at the University of Chicago