President Barack Obama’s defeat over then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary was seen by political scholars and amateur observers alike as a historic upset in American politics. Obama, a young freshman senator widely considered by many to be a Generation X’er, outspent and handily defeated the wealthy and well-known Clinton, a member of the Baby Boomer generation. Much of his success can be attributed to the massive amount of support he received from Millennials. These teens and early twentysomethings were inspired by Obama’s ideals of hope and change and largely rejected Clinton’s belief that her experience was what qualified her to be president. Now, as America begins to decide who they will vote for in 2016, two Baby Boomer candidates have emerged as the frontrunners for the Democrats and Republicans, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, respectively. Can these older politicians woo Millennials the same way Barack Obama did in 2008?
According to the Brookings Institution, Boomers are of a generational archetype labeled “Idealist” by generational analysts. This type of generation is indulged by their parents and encouraged to develop strongly held personal values. As a result, members of Idealist generations uncompromisingly adhere to their deeply held principles all of their lives. This habit produces a challenge for the American political system, which is constitutionally based on institutions that require compromise and coalition-building to pass legislation and accomplish tasks. As a result, Washington, dominated by Baby Boomer politicians, is in a constant state of gridlock
Conversely, Millennials, known as a “Civic” generation, tend to be group-oriented and tolerant of differing beliefs and behavior. This causes them to search for “win-win solutions” to problems that benefit many. The Pew Research Center released an analysis showing that Millennials tended to be more socially liberal and more likely to vote Democratic. However, it still remains unclear how loyal Millennials will be to the Democratic Party, if at all. In fact, Millennials were more likely to reject party labels than older generations, and over half don’t affiliate with either major political party.
Sen. Cory Booker, another famous Generation X politician, encourages Baby Boomers to fully embrace social media and technology with their campaigns in order to appeal to Millennials and other voting blocs. “Dive in,” Booker said in an interview with Government Technology. “Build the power early. After you win the office, social media usage shouldn’t fall off. It should go up. Social media is about engagement.”
After seeing the writing on the wall, both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have publicly stated that technology will be critically essential to their campaigns in order to connect with younger generations. Clinton’s team is busy scouting for innovation specialists who can build the Next Big Thing in campaign tech, as well as social media messengers and data nerds who can dissect the files on millions of potential primary and general election voters for clues on the best persuasion and turnout strategies. Jeb Bush, having always been known as an early-adopter of technology from his days as Florida’s “email” governor, took to Twitter in late 2014 to announce his intention to form a presidential exploratory committee.
While technology is important, Ryan Davis, director of social media for Blue State Digital, the firm behind the development and management of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 online campaign, states that just having a presence on social media isn’t enough. “You still have to engage people and get them to take action. The focus has to be on converting,” said Davis.
In his book “The Performance of Politics,” Jeffrey Alexander argues that field organization is also critical to motivating not just Millennials, but people of all ages. “Nationally, the Obama campaign is training 3,000 volunteers to conduct voter-registration drives as part of its ‘Obama Fellows’ program. These volunteers pledged to work 30 hours a week for six weeks this summer, focusing on blacks, Latinos and young voters in select states,” Alexander wrote. These volunteers were essential in helping to establish a connection between voters and the candidate and getting out the vote. Alexander argues that there must be person-to-person contact for any campaign to be motivated and sustained.
Additional polling by the Pew Research Center found that older generations – like Baby Boomers – do not fully embrace diversity. Fewer members of this group like this see the increasing populations of Latinos and Asians, as well as more racial intermarriage, as changes for the better. The polling also concluded that Millennials are in favor of a generous and compassionate government. And on foreign policy, Millennials want to increase cooperation between nations and shed interventionism.
As Baby Boomers have aged and become a smaller (but still large) percentage of the population, younger voters have become an integral part of the national voting base. Their support can help propel a candidate into the spotlight and make he or she the “cool” thing to support. In order to appeal to Millennials, older Baby Boomer politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush will have to aggressively embrace but accurately use social media and technology and support cooperation between nations and parties, diversity, and equal rights. They will also have to develop extremely organized campaigns that allow voters to establish a connection with the campaign. While Clinton and Bush have signaled their interest in garnering the support of these young Americans, it will be interesting to see who ends up doing a more effective job at it.