A focus group of young voters overwhelmingly said Hillary Clinton won Monday night’s presidential debate, according to John Della Volpe, who studies youth voter trends at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Della Volpe and the Institute of Politics interviewed about 60 voters ages 18 to 29 from across the country to gauge their reactions to the high-profile debate. Like other post-debate focus group polls, it’s a small sample that may not reflect larger post-debate polls.
But the early signs were still encouraging for Clinton. Her support among young voters has shriveled to just 40 percent in recent polling, down from the nearly 60 percent Barack Obama won in 2012 and 2008. But after watching the debate, young voters in this focus group came away thinking she was far more qualified to be president than Donald Trump. Some who went into the debate saying they planned to vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson said afterward they would now expect to vote for Clinton.
“This is the best opportunity she’s had to reset her relationship with millennials,” Della Volpe said. “And all indications from our work — and from the other polling I’m looking at this morning — indicate she accomplished that one step forward.”
With time winding down ahead of the election, the debate may have been Clinton’s best chance to win over what many see as a natural base of support for the Democratic nominee. It looks like she took it.
How millennials reacted to last night’s presidential debate
As Della Volpe points out, we’ve long known that young voters are turned off by Trump. But he says the subjects of his focus group didn’t just confirm that they tend to find Trump deplorable — they also suggested that young voters may be open to affirmatively supporting Clinton.
“The millennial vote isn’t Hillary versus Trump,” Della Volpe says. “It’s Hillary versus Gary Johnson versus sitting on the couch on Election Day.”
Clinton beat both Johnson and the couch.
“She wasn’t the caricature her foes and the media had created of her,” Della Volpe says, summarizing what his interview subjects told him about their reactions to the debate. “I think in the eyes of millennials, she comported herself well in tone and substance. My sense was that they are beginning to take a fresh look at her.”
Clinton beat Trump among young voters regarding who won the debate, who is better qualified, and even on Trump’s signature issues like tackling crime. From the Harvard Institute of Politics’ results:
Whether “winning the debate” translates into many more votes is another question altogether. The evidence on that front is weaker — only about 20 percent of the young poll respondents said they were now more likely to support Clinton — but still largely positive from her perspective.
Della Volpe said his interview subjects told him Clinton appeared more presidential. One University of Kansas student told Della Volpe that the most memorable moment of the debate was when Clinton said she, not Trump, was prepared to become president. Another student, a Johnson voter, said Clinton was much more “laid-back and human” last night than Trump.
“When she grounded herself in being a grandmother at the beginning and ended with the stamina needed to be secretary of state — that bookended the night for her [with millennials],” Della Volpe said.
Of course, none of that means Clinton’s much-discussed “millennial problem” is solved. “She’s not going to erase eight years of underperforming with millennials in one night,” he said. “But she needs to start somewhere, and this was a good start.”