The Challenge of Engaging Millennial Voters in the 2016 Election

The Challenge of Engaging Millennial Voters in the 2016 Election

A Rutgers political scientist says youth turnout this fall could sway the outcome in the presidential race

Rutgers Election Watch 2016: An occasional series examining hot topics in the 2016 presidential race

Millennial voters who largely rallied behind Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary are poised to play a major role in the 2016 presidential election – whether they opt to vote or stay home. Rutgers Today spoke with Elizabeth Matto, an assistant research professor who directs the Eagleton Institute of Politics' Youth Political Participation Program, about what defines the young voting bloc and the difficulty of engaging them in the 2016 presidential race.

Millennials are on track to be the nation's largest generation
Who are the millennial voters?
Matto: Millennials are generally considered as those born after approximately 1980. Standing at about 77 million, the generation is on track to be the nation’s largest generation. It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse generations in American history – nearly 20 percent of millennials are immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. It’s a generation that is highly educated but also heavily burdened by student loan debt. Often referred to as “digital natives,” one the generation’s strengths is its proficiency in its use of technology and new media. It’s a generation that despite economic hardships is optimistic about its future and has a strong desire to fix public problems.   

How significant of a voting bloc are they?
Matto: Millennials are a growing percentage of the eligible electorate. Currently, 21 percent of all eligible voters are between the ages of 18-29. In total, there are 49 million young adults eligible to vote (compared to 45 million voters who are 65 years old or more). In 2016, there will be a large number of new young voters – 16.5 million young adults turned 18 since the 2012 race.

Are they less engaged now than past elections?
Matto: According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) the recent primary contests witnessed very strong, even record-breaking, rates of turnout among young adults. The percentage of eligible 18-29 year olds who voted in 2016 was equal to or greater than rates in 2008 (which saw the third highest voter turnout rate among youth since 1972) and much of that increase was driven by Republican voters.

Survey research gathered by the Institute of Politics at Harvard suggests that although there aren’t as many young adults supporting the Trump candidacy as there are supporting Clinton, Trump supporters are more enthusiastic in their support. Additionally, when it comes to their views on politics and Washington D.C, a sizable majority are in favor of either significant reform or hitting the reset button and starting again. These sentiments might explain the increase in Republican turnout during the primary season. Voter participation among young Democrats did not match their 2008 rates of participation.

There are other forms of political engagement in which young adults excel. For example, millennials demonstrate strong rates of expressive engagement – speaking out and trying to influence the actions of public officials and decisionmakers. This is especially true when it comes to the use of social media as a tool of political engagement.

Elizabeth C. Matto, assistant research professor and director, Youth Political Participation Program
Why are millennial voters feeling disenfranchised and disengaged?
Matto: There are a number of factors that affect young adults’ propensity to vote (or not) on Election Day including their levels of education and income, the sort of political socialization they’ve received from parents and schools over the years, as well as the challenges associated with registering and voting on Election Day that burden young people (such as registration deadlines). Millennials differ from older generations in their sense of civic duty and tend to view voting as a choice rather than a responsibility. As a result, the current lack of enthusiasm that many are experiencing about voting may impede them from expending the effort of registering and getting to the polls. This is where mobilization by candidates, campaigns, parties and groups becomes so important. 

How important is the millennial vote this fall?
Matto: Youth turnout (or lack thereof) in a number of states stands to impact the outcome of the presidential race. This is especially true in swing states with a large number of Electoral College votes and high concentrations of young adults and college campuses. CIRCLE’s 2016 Youth Electoral Significance Index  has identified such states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Florida as states where youth turnout can make or break a candidate’s chances.

Where can I learn more about the Millennial Generation? Where can Rutgers students learn more about registering and voting?
Matto: To learn more about the Millennial Generation visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and The Pew Research Center. Rutgers students can learn more about registering and voting through the Eagleton Institute of Politics' Youth Political Participation Program.


To learn about more research at Rutgers that explores issues at the forefront of the presidential race visit our Rutgers Election 2016 page.

For media inquiries contact Andrea Alexander at 848-932-0556 or andrea.alexander@rutgers.edu