Recent elections in Virginia give party a blueprint, operatives say
Some people in Washington might scoff at millennials’ overpriced artisanal toasts or fancy-schmancy watches-that-are-actually-phones, but there’s at least one thing they want from them: their votes.
A year out from the 2018 midterms, young adults aged 18 to 29 who are likely to vote prefer Democratic control of Congress by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 65 percent to 33 percent, a recent survey by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found.
Millennials are set to overtake their parents as the largest bloc of potential voters next November, too.
But their preference for Democrats is rather reluctant, the Harvard survey’s numbers indicate.
Just 34 percent of those surveyed agreed the Democratic Party cares about people like them. And 75 percent said they do not consider themselves strong members of either party.
“What I’ve seen across the country is that young people are stubbornly independent. And that’s OK,” California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell said, noting that young adults are in sync with his party on liberal issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, universal health care and protection for undocumented immigrants.
“They’re with us on these core Democratic issues. But they don’t want to be in a box,” Swalwell said. “They want to be independent, have the flexibility to not feel like they have to rubber-stamp a party. And we shouldn’t approach them as proselytizing or trying to convert them.”
Swalwell, 37, chairs the House Democrats’ 28-member Future Forum that hosts roundtable discussions with young people in member districts. The group has held more than 50 events with young entrepreneurs, veterans’ groups and college campus leaders since Swalwell launched the initiative in 2015.
Those discussions have prompted members to draw up pro-entrepreneurial and college debt legislation, said forum vice chairwoman Stephanie Murphy, a 39-year-old Florida freshman.
Perhaps most importantly, the Future Forum aims to keep millennials engaged in the political process year-round, a key factor in turning out young voters at midterms.
“If you not only register [millennials] to vote,” Swalwell said, “but you get them to go to the women’s marches, you get them to go to the airports to fight the Muslim ban, you get them to go to a town hall to protect the Affordable Care Act — if you give them tasks, keep them engaged and show them fulfillment in showing up … they’ll go to the ballot box.”
Democratic lawmakers in 2018 will be wise to study the successes of their colleagues in last month’s Virginia elections, which saw the party sweep all three statewide offices and pick up 14 seats in the House of Delegates. Millennial turnout shot up 8 points to 34 percent from 2013 and doubled from 2009, dramatically boosting Democratic gains, two operatives from the commonwealth said.
“2017 was a year of activism,” said Lauren Brainerd, the coordinated campaign director for the Virginia Democrats. “We saw a huge wave of volunteers. I compared 2017 to 2008 a lot. When I first organized in ’08, I tripped over volunteers. … We had that happening this year. People wanted a way to have their voices be heard.”
The party leveraged that massive volunteer base to launch a highly effective peer-to-peer texting campaign, Brainerd said. Volunteers carried on personal conversations with thousands of young prospective voters to ask them about issues and to remind them to register and vote.
“That’s the mode that they actually communicate on,” Brainerd said. “That’s less intrusive to them than calling them on their cell phone. … Before, we just couldn’t get a hold of them.”
Operatives said another way they energized young voters in Virginia was to keep the focus of their conversations on the issues — and not party identification.
“Millennials have an incredible authenticity radar,” Florida’s Murphy said. “If you’re not really authentic about issues... millennials pick up on that.”
With older voters, volunteers will deploy what’s called identity labeling — basically, here’s who’s running for various seats. These are the Democrats. Vote for them.
“We don’t spend a lot of time necessarily talking about the issues,” Brainerd said. “We know that they support Democratic candidates, so we just want to make sure that they know which candidate is going to have a D next to their name. But that’s not the approach we take on a college campus or with younger voters.”
NextGen America, heavyweight Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s political machine, flooded Virginia with more than 1,100 volunteers to turn out millennial votes for the party. The first thing the volunteers did when they met potential voters on university campuses was to survey them on the issues most vital to their political identity, said Ben Wessel, NextGen’s national youth vote director.
“Because we’re leading with the issues and young people identify really strongly with progressive issues, they’re excited about doing work with us,” he said. “As opposed to, ‘Hey, we’re the Democratic Party, we’re the Republican Party.’ There’s a lot of mistrust in existing institutions.”
Some experts have posited that a fierce opposition among young people to President Donald Trump — his approval rating is down to 25 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds, per the Harvard survey — and the GOP majority in both legislative chambers could provide a boon for Democrats in 2018.
But Future Forum members say they don’t necessarily see that as a sustainable way to continue turning out the millennial vote.
Democrats cannot just be “reflexively resistant” to Trump, Swalwell said.
“I don’t think that’s enough,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a Future Forum vice-chairman. “I think millennials, young people want a vision, they want to understand where the Democratic Party is going to take them. … I think we need to be talking more about an economic vision.”
And that’s where the modern Democratic Party has come up short in past elections, Moulton said, indicating that a changing of the guard in party leadership could go a long way in energizing the younger, more independent generation of voters.
“We need leaders here in Washington who have the same stake in the future as the people that we’re up here to represent,” he said.