Editor’s Note: Jesse Ferguson is a democratic strategist. He worked as deputy national press secretary and senior spokesperson for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was deputy executive director and director of the independent expenditure arm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2014. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Whether you believe it was a miss in Michigan or a Russian-led mission in America, Donald Trump seized power in 2016 without the support of the majority of the American people. In just over 200 days, the American people will get a chance to fight back and reclaim control.
As we hit that 200-day mark, you can expect the prognosticators to go into full swing, breathless speculation to begin in earnest, and the unverified hot takes to ensue. Undoubtedly, I’ll probably participate in all three.
The question I get asked more than any other these days is what can be done to ensure a Democratic victory in Congress and a check on this reckless White House?
People wonder: Is it the candidates? The money? The message? Do we need to fix our polling? Our digital advertising? Should we take on Trump directly or take on his ever-shifting agenda? The possibilities go on and on.
All of those questions are valid.
For the answer to these questions, maybe it’s Whitney Houston we should turn to: “I believe the children are our future.”
If you need to see proof of the energy and passion among America’s youth and young adults – voters and soon-to-be-voters – you needed to only look out your window last weekend. After the tragedy in Parkland last month, young people are saying enough is enough; they said it loud and clear during the nationwide March for Our Lives on Saturday.
The Washington Post recently found that, since Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending 193 schools have had to go through a shooting on campus during school hours. Until that stops, what we saw on the streets this weekend won’t stop either.
These young, empowered activists are turning up to march, give speeches, and ask the tough questions. And when they turn up to vote, they’ll have a chance to use their voices in yet another way. They will be Democrats’ greatest advantage.
The pattern is clear. According to exit polls, in 2016, voters under 29 made up 19% of the electorate; in 2012, they made up 19% ; and in 2008, they made up 18% . In each of those elections, Democrats won the popular vote.
On the other hand, in 2014, voters under 29 were only 13% of the electorate; in 2010, they were just 12%. In those midterms, Democrats lost the Senate and the House, respectively. The young vote is clearly a key part of the party’s success.
Simply increasing young voter turnout won’t do the trick, though; we also have to make sure they turn out for us. In Virginia, Hillary Clinton won voters under 29 by 18 points in 2016 while Barack Obama won them by 25 points in 2012. While these voters made up 18% and 19% of the Virginia electorate in 2016 and 2012, respectively, their share fell to 14% in the 2017 gubernatorial race. However, that drop in turnout was more than offset because Democrat Ralph Northam won young voters by a staggering 39 points.
Increasing turnout of voters under 29 and expanding our win margins with them is easier said than done. It’s going to take candidates these young people believe in. That doesn’t mean candidates have to be defined as liberal or moderate, progressive or conservative. They just have to be honest and, above all, authentic and ready to fix things. These voters have a more finely tuned BS detector than any in history.
What’s more, it’s going to require candidates to be more thoughtful about how and where they’re communicating. Traditional broadcast television campaign ads during the nightly news should remain a big part of the strategy, but they can’t be the only part. A full 88% of 18-29-year-olds say they use social media, according to the recently released Pew survey, and about 60% of them use online streaming as their primary method of watching TV.
In a recent Fox News poll, voters favored Democrat over Republican control of Congress by 5 points. And the latest Pew Research survey found Democrats’ advantage among millennial voters to be 33 points, a wider margin than in the past.
Maybe you don’t believe the polling. You wouldn’t be the only one. But this activism is already turning into action in the declaration-of-candidacy forms that people are filling out all over the country. There is an unprecedented surge of candidates under 35 running for office from school board to Congress, with new groups like Run For Something identifying over 16,000 individuals who are involved with their efforts.
This midterm could mark a historic shift. It’s likely that millennials will overtake baby boomers as the largest voting bloc. Looking back, the 1980s were known for creating a cohort of young people who backed Reagan in their first-ever vote and went on to back Republicans in election after election. Those who turned 18 in 1984 are 52 today, and they’re powering the GOP nationwide. If Democrats do this right, we can see an age cohort that fuels us in 2018 and in the future.
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This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for president, and the uprising among young people that changed the direction of this country. 2018 could be another moment when that torch is passed to a new generation of leadership. The spark is already lit.
And for those Republicans who stand in opposition to these young voters – and work against what they are fighting for – I can honestly offer only one thing as we approach the midterm elections: my thoughts and prayers.