The New Swing Vote
Barack Obama had us. Hillary Clinton didn’t reach us. Donald Trump ignored us. Yet we, the millennial generation, make up 30% of the voting age population, and by 2020 we will be the largest voting bloc in America.
As of 2015, just under half of millennials were people of color, and trends show that this diverse electorate should lean Democratic. Obama’s 2012 multicultural, millennial coalition in the key states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, could have won Democrats the presidency this past November. If Democrats hope to compete, especially given the expectation of Russian meddling in future elections, now is the time to invest in us — their critical, and increasingly diverse, audience.
During this past election season, many in the multicultural, millennial bloc behaved like swing voters, only they didn’t choose between Republicans and Democrats; they chose between Democrats and staying home or voting 3rd party.
Why? Clearly neither political party satisfactorily addressed the issues that matter most to the diverse, millennial base; we don’t like binary choices with unappealing outcomes. To some, a protest vote was the only effective civic engagement avenue open to express a lack of faith in government.
Seeking to better understand this trend, in May of 2017 Civic Engagement Fund commissioned Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies to join the ranks of a small number of groups who invested in focused post-mortems of the 2016 election. Unlike other efforts however, we focused solely on the above-mentioned critical tipping point: the multicultural, millennial protest vote.
The Protest Vote
The most troubling finding among the focus groups held in Florida and Wisconsin, was that given a do-over election, participants stated they would vote the same way, or stay home again, even knowing that Trump would become president. That’s how important it was that their dissatisfaction with government be recognized. Citing criminal justice reform, increased economic opportunity, and quality, affordable healthcare as their top three concerns, participants also voiced their intention to continue to vote third party as long as neither Democrats nor Republicans invest sufficient time and resources in their communities. This is the new swing vote.
More civic engagement options are needed to capture these critical voters. If we, the millennial vote, have easier access to shaping politics from the local to the federal level, primary elections will produce more candidates that understand and reflect the will of our vital and growing electorate. Without this shift, come 2018 and 2020, canvassing efforts and campaign rhetoric may fail to adequately address multicultural millennials. Instead, the future largest voting bloc could be ignored until our low turnout becomes an increasingly dangerous electoral issue. Given the recent special election losses in South Carolina and Georgia, Democrats seem determined to repeat past mistakes — even when they have the demographic data to redirect away from a failed strategy.
Civic Engagement Access
The recent explosion of progressive, civic engagement start-ups in response to the 2016 election, aka “the Resistance,” has startled establishment Democrats, and ruffled feathers amongst established progressive organizations with similar mission statements.
Establishment Democrats seem daunted by progressive demands that refute calls for the party to shift right in pursuit of the white working class vote (which our research shows is increasingly difficult to reach). Meanwhile, some longstanding progressive groups are worried that these Resistance start-ups will poach donor attention in a zero-sum game for progressive funding. While the ACLU and Planned Parenthood set good examples in supporting and/or collaborating with the new Resistance, they are seen as being able to afford to do so.
In addition, groups focused on and run by people of color, point out that they’ve been doing civic engagement work for decades as the loyal opposition, not the Resistance.
The Democratic brand is fractured. It doesn’t embrace all its communities equally. Winning elections requires authentic engagement with people of all colors. We want candidates that clearly state what values they stand for, not what opponent they stand against. If Democratic politicians ensure that the communities they serve have equal access to the resources necessary for addressing criminal justice reform, economic, and healthcare issues, the multicultural, millennial coalition will have a reason to swing blue.
To achieve this end, alliances are needed between the new Resistance, the loyal opposition, progressive organizations, and politicians who hold progressive ideals. These alliances would then have a good chance of finding the gaps in citizen engagement and meeting millennial populations with an authentic voice. They can then provide guidance for citizen collaboration with sitting politicians, and coordinate GOTV support come election season. We’re ready to listen, given leadership that inspires us.
How do we incentivize cooperation? Project-based funding, contingent on effective collaboration and positive partnership outcomes, could go a long way towards healing rifts left over from the 2016 Democratic primary.
The Trump administration’s attempt to hobble the 2020 census underscores how concerned the GOP is when it comes to the voting power of multicultural millennials. As most Republicans have failed to serve this group, without a dramatic change in direction, Democrats have the advantage. As demographics shift, Democrats cannot afford to fight yesterday’s battle. Today’s newly energized electorate is tomorrow’s largest voting bloc, and we are demanding authentic, solutions-oriented politicians.
Civic Engagement Fund commissioned Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies to conduct targeted qualitative research among “protest” voters with an emphasis on millennials of color, who voted 3rd party or did not vote in 2016, but previously voted for Barack Obama. This research was conducted in Fort Lauderdale, FL and Milwaukee, WI on May 2–4, 2017. The full report can be viewed at www.civicengagementfund.org.