When my 19-year old daughter said she wanted to come with me to the NDN Conference held in Washington over the past two days, I got excited about the “bonding” potential for us. Little did I know that she would be the most important person there. Not her personally, but what she represents: the Millennial Generation.
Presidential-year voting among 18- to 29-year-olds grew to 52% in the 2004 presidential election. And in the 10 most contested states, voters in the 18-29-year old bracket (which includes Millennials and a year’s worth of Gen X voters) 64% turned out, according to Pete Leyden of the New Politics Institute in remarks made at the NDN Conference. Leyden said that if the electoral vote of only young Americans were counted, Kerry would have won the 2004 electoral vote by 375 to 163. What makes this so compelling is that the Millennial Generation is as large as the Boomer Generation and represents a quarter of the nation’s people. Its sheer size will make it a player in the politics of the future.
The good news for progressives is that Millennials are more engaged in the political process than Gen Xers and more progressive in outlook, according to a study commissioned by the New Politics Institute, which is affiliated with NDN. The study differentiates among 13-28 year old Millennials (Teens, Transitionals and Cusps) and finds some distinctions. The Teens (13-17-year olds) are less tolerant of gay marriage and abortion than their older peers and more skeptical of the political process. But they share with 18-28-year olds a progressive attitude about the government’s role in leveling the economic playing field, making higher education affordable and environmental protection. The older Millennials more often identify themselves as Democrats or progressives than they do Republicans or even Independents. And today, only 40% of them are even eligible to vote. In a word, they represent potential.
William Strauss of LifeCourse Associates said Millennials are receptive to the notion of “the common good” and that it’s important when developing progressive political strategy to “look at the world through their eyes.” Those eyes increasingly belong to minorities. Thirty-eight percent of Millennials are second generation Americans, mostly Asians and Hispanics.
The importance of the Millennial Generation to the progressive movement then begs the question: How do we harness that potential? With the trends in our favor, we’ll still need to market candidates to them. The good news is it may cost less.
Speakers at the NDN convention said most politicians — especially Democrats — fear innovation and therefore continue to invest in inefficient and expensive ad buys for television spots. Part of the reason is that Democratic consultants get paid through commissions on such buys. “The consultant class of the Democratic Party are no longer interested in winning elections,” said NDN President Simon Rosenberg. “They’re interested in getting rich.” That echoes the thesis of Joe Klein’s book, Politics Lost. “The baby boom generation has proved a fairly significant trough in the history of American political leadership; our greatest gift — our only — contribution to the Republic has been the rise of the political consultancy.”
Instead of consultants, argued former Dean campaign manger Joe Trippi, candidates need to hire “19-year old mentors.” He argued that they know how to get to their peers. In fact, the “user-generated content” that is currently in vogue among internet entrepreneurs should be tested in political campaigns. Millennials don’t’ watch as much television as baby boomers (my 17-year old son is an obvious anomaly). But they surf the net almost continually, and their link to the world is their cell phone.
Cell phone usage is skyrocketing, and according to presentations at the NDN conference, it is highest among minority youth. And according to Congressman Arthur Davis (D-Ala.), black males 18-25 in his state vote 20% less frequently than white youth. Meanwhile, one application of cell phones most popular among younger voters is text messaging.
Only one-third of U.S. cellphone owners use text messages — a practice immensely popular in Europe and Asia. Two-thirds of cellphone owners between ages 18 and 29 send text messages — one of many areas where young adults have a more versatile approach to the devices.
More than half, 55%, of young adults take still pictures with their phones; 47% play games and 28% use the Internet, according to the poll of more than 1,200 cellphone users.
And overall, there were 9.8 billion text messages sent in December 2005, a 109% increase from December 2004. I started out paying for 250 text messages a month for each of my three kids, but soon had to migrate to a plan that offers somewhere around 3 million messages a month. So it seems logical that Democrats need to develop text messaging initiatives to reach these potential voters.
Cell phones offer maybe the most important but certainly not the only avenue to the Millennial vote. Appearances on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, email campaigns, My Space and Facebook initiatives and college meet-ups should be part of the mix.
After the conference, my daughter introduced herself to Rosenbergl asking how she could help. Maybe she should instead offer to be Jim Webb’s 19-year old mentor.