There has been a lot of hand-wringing recently about the plight of America’s young people. They get too many trophies. They’re far too willing to move back into their parent’s basement. They’re so plugged into their smartphones that they’ve become incapable of forming meaningful human relationships. Nowhere has this tendency to bemoan disinterested millennials been more pronounced than in government. It has become received wisdom that young people don’t care about politics, or if they do, they only care about abstract injustices that play out on the other side of the world.
This view is totally bunk — and the Massachusetts gubernatorial race is showing why. Millennials, generally defined as people born between 1980 and 2000, are far more likely to engage in public or community service than their older relatives. A staggering 53 percent of college students engaged in service of some kind or another in 2013. Slightly older data indicates that community service has become a generational trait of millennials. Forty-three percent of young people donate their time regularly to causes they believe in. Only 35 percent of baby boomers do.
Savvy politicians have been quick to capitalize on this trend, and both President Barack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren were able to turn young people’s underlying concern about social issues into big turnouts on election day.
The fact is, youth voters decide elections. Because millennials tend to be outside of the traditional power structures of both major parties, they have the ability to catapult a little-known candidate into elected office — if that candidate finds a way to appeal to this new demographic. Even though the election is still a little less than a year away, the smart gubernatorial hopefuls are already scrambling to unlock this potentially vital voting bloc.
Tactics differ between the various campaigns. Former Medicare and Medicaid administrator Donald Berwick has tried to reach out to young people by holding “webinars” — online seminars — with kids across the Commonwealth. According to campaign spokesman Leigh Appleby, students from 45 colleges across the state logged in. Going one step further, Steve Grossman has formed a young professional advisory council, designed to give the 68-year-old state treasurer an insight into the issues important to young voters. The fact that he has made a point of talking about housing, transportation, and student debt on the campaign trail is partially a result of working with this group.
Former Homeland Security official and one-time Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem has been trying to brand herself as the candidate with the most “public service” experience — a deliberate nod to a new generation of voters who have little time for career government officials or private-sector CEOs. With this, as well as with direct outreach to high school and college students, Kayyem hopes to show that capturing the youth vote is a cornerstone of her campaign. “We engage young people because they need to be a part of how we govern,” says campaign spokesman Matt Patton.
Strong words about the importance of young people is a risky strategy for more established candidates who need the support of traditional power brokers to get through the caucuses and the primary. But even among those unwilling to take that rhetorical leap, some candidates are showing a more intuitive understanding of how to communicate to young people. Very few of Charlie Baker’s platforms seem designed to appeal specifically to millennials, but his Twitter feed is head and shoulders above the rest. The Republican front-runner writes almost all of his tweets — and his replies to followers. Social media might seem trivial, but for voters looking for hints about a candidate’s personality, it’s a vital tool. Baker’s Twitter feed makes him look like a real human being, something that cannot necessarily be said for the competition.
Millennials are still an enigma for many in the political establishment. But the odds are not good for any politician who doesn’t take the time to try and understand a large and politically active segment of the population. It remains to be seen whether any of the gubernatorial candidates can lock up the youth vote. But there is much to gain for the politicians who try, and everything to lose for the ones who don’t.Noah Guiney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NoahGuiney.