Why Democrats Are Failing Millennials and What They Can Learn From Republicans About Engaging Youth

It’s no secret that millennials are a predominately liberal-minded crowd that support Democrats in most elections. From the 2008 presidential election to issues like marriage equality, millennials are a proven progressive demographic. Yet Rolling Stone published an article on Wednesday looking at a growing trend of millenials’ resistance to self-identify as Democrats despite the fact that their views predominately fall in line with the Democratic Party’s mantra.

While the article points out that a shift away from party identification is happening across the board in America, it also shows how this is a Democrat-specific problem, and that “right-of-center kids seem perfectly happy calling themselves Republicans.” It seems ironic that the party stereotyped as that of old men is dominating the party associated with younger, more diverse people when it comes to issues of youth voting. The article suggests that the drop in young Democrats has to do with disillusionment and ideological misalignments between the party establishment and progressive youth.

However, the discrepancy here is due in larger part to institutional explanations. Simply put, Democrats have taken millennials for granted and invested little in training or mentoring them, while Republicans have built up a powerful network that is continually recruiting and retaining the new generation of conservtives. If Democrats want to win millennials back, they need to emulate the model of conservative youth organizations.

Republicans have had an organized and well-funded approach to youth engagement for decades. There are over a dozen nation-wide youth training organizations, from Young Americans for Freedom to Young Americans Foundation to the Intercollegiate Student Institute (a strong support network designed to foster College Republican presence on campuses with a streamlined agenda). These organizations are well-funded by large conservative foundations (their annual operating budget is over $40 million) and they provide extensive leadership training and opportunities mostly at no cost to their participants. These programs specifically prepare participants for leadership within the Republican party in numerous disciplines (campaigns, journalism) and have a proven track record; powerhouse Republicans like Karl Rove and Ann Coulter are products of these organizations' programs. (Michael Connery’s book about millennials and politics called Youth to Power dedicates a chapter to talking about this "conservative youth factory," and is well worth a read).

Not only are these conservative organizations highly effective, they are sustained programs that build and retain membership year-round, and not just on an election-by-election basis. The Obama campaign did a phenomenal job at engaging and inspiring youth, but it was done as a campaign and on an election cycle basis. The numbers showed just how sustainable this approach is: In 2008, millennials identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by 60% to 32%; the numbers are now 47% to 43%. Democrats cannot wait for an election or a particularly inspiring candidate to build a youth movement, and they certainly cannot let it fall by the wayside once that election has been won.

Democrats need to offer more leadership and training programs like Republicans and fully fund them so that the financial burden is not placed on the trainees. A system based on unpaid internships and high-cost trainings is an extremely anti-progressive system that disadvantages low-income youth and often people of color, benefitting only middle-class or wealthy students who can afford to live and work unpaid for summers or semesters in expensive places like DC or New York. 

Starting in the early 2000s, there has been a noticeable shift as Democrats attempted to adjust their strategy; leadership programs like YP4 (Young People For) have begun cropping up as a progressive alternative to the Republican youth organizations. But unless the party consciously invests significantly more time, energy, and money in mentoring their youth, millennials will continue have little personal stake in the Democratic Party. Democrats can easily win back millennials, but they need a sustainable program that creates a connection that currently does not exist. Though most millennials will still cast their vote for President Obama in 2012, it is becoming clear that Millennials are not about to let the Democrats take them for granted forever.

Photo Credit: Mia Pskowski