Who will grab the millennial vote?

Are millennial voters rejecting labels?
Are millennial voters rejecting labels?

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    Are millennial voters rejecting labels?

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Are millennial voters rejecting labels? 04:54

Story highlights

  • Both parties are eager to woo the increasingly powerful millennial voters
  • Julian Zelizer: Traditional issues of politics don't speak to this generation

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A new political generation has arrived in town: the millennials.

Democrats and Republicans are struggling to make sense of who they are. Both parties are eager to appeal to this generational cohort, aged roughly 18 to 34. Millennials will be an important voting bloc in swing states in the 2016 presidential election, as they were in 2008 and 2012.
In the 2012 election, millennials played a significant role determining the vote in states such as Florida and Ohio. According to ThinkProgress, millennials, who overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in the past two elections, could reach almost 36% of the eligible voting pool.
Republicans are hoping to break this pattern, given the frustration this generation has expressed toward Washington and President Barack Obama in recent months.
Julian Zelizer
Besides the vote, they will have immense influence in the realms of opinion-making, fund-raising and political organizing. Millennials will be writing much of the political commentary about the 2016 election, they will be working the rooms where candidates tap donors for campaign funds and they will be responsible for much of the work of grass-roots organizing.
For all these reasons the parties are desperate to figure out a winning strategy. "What's the secret sauce?" asked Jake Horowitz, editor and co-founder of Mic News, at a panel convened by New America in New York, "Everyone wants to reach the demo."
But the political leaders of the parties are not talking about the issues that matter to this generation. For many millennials, the kinds of social and cultural issues that have so animated American politics since the 1980s just don't resonate.
This generation has grown up in an era of great ethnic and social diversity, the most socially diverse of any generation in American history, and one in which older sexual and gender norms have been shattered. Sixty-eight percent of them favor same-sex marriage, and 69% support legalizing marijuana.
Conventional party lines of division over questions such as abortion or immigration don't resonate with them, and they want to be talking about other questions such as economics and climate change that seem to get short shrift in Washington.
This generation has grown up in an economy where the middle class is no longer secure and good jobs have often migrated to other countries. The millennials face growing inequality between the rich and the poor. According to a study by Pew, they are the first in recent memory to experience more student debt, poverty and unemployment -- as well as diminished wealth and income -- than the two generations that came before them.
According to another poll, 64% of younger Americans feel that the division between the rich and poor is worse than before they were born.
They have also lived through decades where rising levels of carbon emissions have been degrading the environment without Congress taking any steps to do something about it.
One challenge that politicians face is the basic question of how to reach them. Millennials don't often obtain their political news from traditional outlets. Indeed, they don't even tune into the news venues that Generation X depended on. Print newspapers and magazines are dead for this generation, network television is out (and, to some extent cable), and everything revolves around an Internet that is constantly in flux. When younger Americans want to learn about what is going on in the world, they often rely on comedy shows such as "The Daily Show" to enlighten them.
Obama has made a strong push to find ways to communicate with this generation. He conducted lengthy interviews with Vox.com and BuzzFeed, and he famously made a pitch for the Affordable Care Act through "Between Two Ferns," the kind of soft news political entertainment that is often a place where millennials turn.
But the work has just started. Right now there is a huge void between these voters and the ways in which politicians communicate. It's not simply the mainstream media to which they are disconnected. Many millennials are also breaking their attachment to other traditional institutions, such as organized religion, that have historically been essential in political communications.
Elected officials also must struggle to reach a generation that fundamentally doesn't trust government. In 2013, a poll by the Harvard Public Opinion Project found that a majority of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 would vote out every member of Congress. This cohort of Americans has felt constantly let down. "I don't think there's a lot of truth in politics," said one 22-year-old student at George Washington University.
They started to come of age after 9/11 when even a horrific crisis was not able to bring the parties together for very long. The images of politicians from both parties standing side by side after the attacks was quickly replaced with vicious campaign ads from 2002, where national security was used as an issue aimed at destroying the character of other candidates.
Their confidence in the ability of government to solve the smallest of problems, let alone the big challenges, is minuscule. As one journalist commented, "The grandparents stood for Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and its massive expansion of government power. The children marched for civil rights and a war's end, demanding changes in law and policy. And now the grandchildren use Uber to ferry their children to charter schools."
The final lesson, an important one, will be that politicians need to avoid treating millennials as a uniform group. "There are millions of millennials!" Barbara Pierce Bush, the granddaughter of the former president, proclaimed, "I can't speak for everyone." A one-size-fits-all approach probably won't work. Any strategy that only assumes commonality is likely to fail. While there are important shared characteristics that hold them together, effective political outreach will also necessitate shrewd micro-targeting and attention to difference.
Millennials bring a lot to the table. Though they will be difficult to reach, they are a generation that has survived through incredible changes and that is remarkably comfortable living in a dynamic society. They are nimble; they are a generation of start-ups. Millennials live in a global world and are not bound by many of the local constraints of earlier years.
The good news for the parties is that the major candidates, Hillary Clinton (assuming she runs) and Jeb Bush still poll pretty well with this group. But to translate those polls into active support will take a considerable amount of work.
We are also seeing the emergence of millennial politicians in both parties, such as Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a representative who is the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and, Republican Anitere Flores, a Cuban American in the Florida state Senate, likely to be among the elected leaders of tomorrow.
The party that figures out how to tap millennials' energy, and overcome the challenges of reaching them, can bring a huge and powerful group of Americans into their coalition.