Monday, October 03, 2016

It's Not Just Millennials: Third Party Candidates Always Do Better With Young Voters

Over the last few weeks, reporters have published a number of stories about the struggles that Hillary Clinton has faced in convincing millennial-generation voters to support her over third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. The Clinton campaign has recently taken steps to rectify this apparent problem, such as booking their candidate to appear on the Zach Galifianakis talk show parody "Between Two Ferns" while enlisting Bernie Sanders, who carried the under-30 vote in the Democratic primaries by a nearly 4-to-1 margin, to stump on her behalf.

Age-group differences in electoral preferences always invite analysis that generalizes about generations. These stories repeatedly portray millennials as distinctive in their political idealism, their dissatisfaction with the political system, and their view of the two major parties (and their leaders) as fatally compromised and corrupted. Older Americans who are already prone to view the millennial generation as uniquely naive, self-involved, and politically unsophisticated can find plenty of fodder for such negative impressions from anecdotal accounts of 20-somethings who speak of voting as an opportunity for personal performances of authenticity rather than as a means of influencing the policy direction of the government, and some Democratic supporters (a fairly panicky bunch by nature) seem poised to blame millennials for a Trump victory, if it occurs, lecturing voters who are too young to remember about Ralph Nader's role in spoiling Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Before we get carried away with chewing over the supposedly distinctive attributes of millennials (an exercise that has a 90% chance of ending up in a hazily-informed debate over the deficiencies of Snapchat and/or Lena Dunham), it's worth pointing out that third-party candidates always run better among younger voters, regardless of the era. Nader was more popular among the youngest cohort of voters in 2000 (today's 30- and 40-somethings), Ross Perot's candidacies in the 1990s drew especially well from the young of that time (today's 40- and 50-somethings), and John Anderson's independent campaign in 1980 was also more successful among the then-young (now deep into middle age) than the then-old (now mostly departed from the earthly realm).

George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who ran for president in 1968 on a racial segregationist platform, might seem like an unlikely candidate to inspire a youth brigade, but even Wallace ran a bit better among younger than older voters. The chart below compares the performance of major third-party candidates among young (under the age of 30) and old (over 50 for 1968 and 1980; over 60 otherwise) voters, based on exit polls (1992 and after) and pre-election Gallup surveys (for 1968 and 1980):

It is clear that candidates outside the two-party system enjoy a particular appeal among young voters regardless of their specific generation. Younger voters are consistently less invested in the two-party system, more open to large-scale political change, and less strategic in their political choices. They also frequently have yet to experience politics under the rule of both parties (at least as attentive adults) and, in part for this reason, tend not to perceive large differences between the major parties as reliably as older voters with longer memories (and more grievances).

Hillary Clinton does not inspire the same level of support among today's younger voters as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, leaving open the possibility of large-scale third-party defection that could possibly endanger her chances. It's likely that the Clinton campaign will place a particular emphasis on young-voter outreach between now and November, hoping to convince skeptics among the rising generation that she is, if not a thoroughly inspiring choice, still preferable to the alternative. This message may ultimately find some resonance. The third-party vote usually declines in the final tally from its pre-election levels as voters return to the major party nominees—and while millennials don't particularly like Clinton, they really don't like Donald Trump.