Battlegrounds

The Clinton Campaign Has a Millennial Math Problem

In New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and other northern states, the Democratic nominee still has to close the deal with Bernie Sanders holdouts.

Plouffe: Clinton’s Millennial Problem Is Huge

It is understandable if Hillary Clinton’s team is traumatized by having to fight once again for New Hampshire. The first-in-the-nation primary state delivered her a crucial comeback victory against Barack Obama in 2008 and then, eight years later, dealt her what was perhaps last spring’s most all-encompassing defeat. Bernie Sanders beat her by more than 22 points, winning just about everywhere in the state, and carrying nearly every demographic group outside the oldest and the richest.

While the last time New Hampshire went red was in 2000, it still represents one of the Clinton campaign’s most perplexing challenges. The reason is that, while Sanders may now stand behind the Democratic presidential nominee, not all his supporters have followed, which may explain why Clinton has invited Sanders to appear by her side Wednesday when she discusses college affordability on the campus of the University of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is emblematic of a larger Clinton problem. The youth vote was one of the pillars of the Obama coalition. But thus far it’s proven perhaps the most difficult one for Clinton to rebuild. Polls show the nominee failing to earn the confidence of young voters—only 33 percent of those between ages 18-29 told Gallup this month that they approved of her—and running far behind where she would hope to be against her Republican opponent. The polls also show Clinton currently winning under half their votes, while Obama got over three-fifths of that demographic in both of his campaigns.

There are, however, emerging hints of a shift toward Clinton. One group tracking the movement of so-called Sanders holdouts in the general election is NextGen Climate, which is working with labor unions on a super-PAC created to boost Democrats. In August, their pollsters found that 15 percent of young voters surveyed across the country would back Sanders in an imaginary four-way presidential race, but did not back Clinton when she was offered in his place. That represented a five-point drop from July, a possible indication of the influence that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may have had from their prominent perches on the first night of the Democratic convention. Still, an analysis by the progressive strategy center Project New America found that in a number of battleground states—including Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina—the Sanders holdouts likely constitute a constituency larger than the margins that decided the 2012 presidential race. They also represent a source of lost activist energy for the Democratic ticket: Nestled within Sanders’ approximately 12 million votes were 2.5 million donors. 

Traces of those holdouts may be even more evident in the northern tier of states—Sanders won every state that abuts Canada, except for Clinton’s home state of New York. These states share more than latitude: New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota are among the most homogenous of the battlegrounds. In comparison, the percentage of black Americans nationwide is twice as high as it is in Wisconsin, which has the most racially mixed population of these Sanders states. In large, diverse states, an effective mobilization campaign can make up for a lack of enthusiasm among youth voters. But the relatively small, overwhelmingly white states that Sanders won offer little opening to change the November electorate with get-out-the-vote efforts. Sanders carried primaries and caucuses in five of the six states with the highest voter turnout in the 2012 general election—and came achingly close in the other, Iowa—which suggests that Clinton has few strategic options other than winning over his supporters, especially the young ones.

While Donald Trump has declared his intent to compete for Sanders voters—with stray praise for the Vermonter for “telling the truth”—his campaign appears to have made few sustained efforts to win them over. As a result, Clinton’s campaign fears less that they will swing Republican than that they will move to a third-party candidate, or simply not vote.

Clinton will need to close the deal with these young Sanders fence-sitters through persuasion—by demonstrating her progressive cred, making them invested in stopping Trump, or illustrating the futility of going Green or Libertarian.

Because Sanders competed through all 56 primaries and caucuses, his supporters are everywhere. We went looking for them in northern-tier battleground states Sanders won to determine how their presence could complicate Clinton’s electoral arithmetic.

New Hampshire

The only true swing state left in the Northeast, New Hampshire remains vital to nearly every viable path Trump has to reach 270 electoral votes. There is potentially straightforward math for a Republican to win here—by mobilizing the party’s existing coalition—and Trump could get an organizational boost in doing so from Republican candidates running for Senate, governor, and Congress. Even without the help of ticket-mates, it should be easier for Trump to find his targets here than in other states. Trump will benefit from groundwork laid by his 16 primary opponents, many of whom took field organizing more seriously than he did. Those who fulfilled their obligations to return intelligence to the Republican National Committee should have provided Trump a de-facto census of the state’s Republicans and right-leaning independents. 

Starting with a smaller base, Clinton’s path is more likely to require winning persuadables, even without the challenge of getting past primary-season differences. New Hampshire’s persuadables—59 percent of whom are likely to have a college education, and more than 80 percent of whom live in the Boston media market—seem likely to be friendlier to Clinton, and, presidentially, the state has had a blue tinge for a couple of decades. But New Hampshire’s “Don’t Tread on Me” reputation isn't just tourism-merchandise swagger; the state has a substantial pool of voters who choose not to join a party. Among them are 35,717 independents who voted in the 2016 Democratic primary but didn't vote in 2008—a good indicator of the type of Sanders backer who might not be compelled by party loyalty to rally behind the woman who beat him for the nomination. Sanders repeatedly did best not among the Democratic base, but with voters who were not registered with the party yet nonetheless able to cast a ballot in its primary. And they are not just Bernie Bros: 54 percent are women.

In New Hampshire, these Berniependents represent eight percent of the total expected votes Clinton will need to win the state, a figure well larger than the margin in most current polls (though not all of them will turn out). In Durham, where Clinton and Sanders have scheduled their joint appearance, Berniependents are equal to more than one out of five Democratic primary voters. 

Maine

Though Maine is one of the nation’s oldest and whitest states, it offers daunting math for any Republican. A Democrat who mobilizes two-thirds of the party’s GOTV targets can hit this year’s win number by carrying just 37 percent of the state's persuadable voters—likely voters who are independents or otherwise genuinely up for grabs. The problem for Clinton is that Sanders crushed her in Maine—he won the Democratic caucuses by 28 points. And the list of Democratic GOTV targets is likely to include a large number of Sanders holdouts or others who are not fully committed to Clinton’s campaign—for one thing, Democratic GOTV targets are more than four times more likely to be under the age of 35 than the party’s base.

Maine also presents an interesting tactical problem: Nearly three-quarters of those GOTV targets live in the Portland media market, which also happens to reach 7 percent of New Hampshire’s persuadables. Clinton may find that trying to talk to both audiences at once is counterproductive. The national-security themes she emphasizes to potential center-right defectors—including validation from the likes of Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham—might well alienate the 2,134 New Hampshire Berniependents who receive Maine television signals. The NextGen/Project New America polling shows, not surprisingly, that the Sanders holdouts are even more liberal than other millennial voters on a number of issues, including support for gun-control measures, increased taxes on the wealthy, and debt-free college tuition.

Maine is one of only two states that can award electoral-college votes to multiple candidates. Two electors are bound to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and one each for whoever wins the state’s two congressional districts. Typically, they swing together, but this year looks ripe for a split, given the extent to which the cultural cleavage between Clinton’s and Trump’s appeal aligns with the border separating the districts. This is sometimes simplified, in Maine terms, as the First District’s hiking-and-kayaking lifestyle versus the Second’s hunting-and-fishing sensibility.

For Trump, a statewide victory may be out of reach; even mobilizing half his GOTV targets and winning two-thirds of persuadables would not get him there. But things look much brighter for Trump in the Second District, which comprises almost all of the state beyond the Portland metro area. The district looks a lot like patches of the Rust Belt where Trump thrives: an overwhelmingly white population living in blue-collar communities rife with economic pessimism. It is tough terrain for mobilization—it’s the largest district east of the Mississippi River, and one of the most rural anywhere in the country—but it's inexpensive to try to persuade voters there. Trump’s tightfisted media buyers may find rates in the Bangor and Presque Isle television markets friendly to their budgets. (Only four markets in the country are smaller than Presque Isle.)

Trump has led in polling in the Second District, and the demographics appear bleak for Clinton. While 54 percent of First District persuadables are likely to have a college degree, only 28 percent of their Second District peers do, and there are roughly 1,000 persuadable minority voters in the rural district. For her part, Clinton may find it most efficient to run up the score in the First District to guarantee a three-to-one electoral-vote split instead of actively pursuing all four. If Clinton mobilizes all of her GOTV targets in the First District, and wins half of its persuadables, she will be close to ensuring statewide victory even if Trump romps up north.

Wisconsin

In this highly polarized state, the two parties start with bases of almost identical size, more than three-quarters of the way to the win number. And though the state hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1984, Trump could theoretically get nearly the rest of the way by turning out the party’s GOTV targets. A mobilization strategy may be less far-fetched for Trump in Wisconsin than in other states. He already has access to perhaps his most traditional state-level field organization here; a late August analysis by PBS NewsHour found far more Trump field offices in Wisconsin than in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Colorado combined. That infrastructure is a testament to the interest of other Republican leaders in tending to local needs. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is a former state party chair, and Governor Scott Walker has a formidable local machine; both are committed to aiding the reelection of embattled first-term senator Ron Johnson. If they can turn out their quarter-million GOTV targets, Trump can win with only seven percent of persuadables.

Yet both Trump and Clinton have reason to worry about the Badger State. Both nominees lost their primary contests here, each by a hefty 13 points. (Ted Cruz, with the backing of much of the state’s conservative machine, including influential talk-radio commentators, won on the Republican side.) In those defeats, each side could see potential to eat into their opponents’ general-election coalition, either hunting for turncoats or attempting to push anti-Trump or anti-Clinton voters towards third-party options, making it harder for the opposition to reach the win number. Trump may look to the half-million likely gun owners in the Democratic base as targets; Clinton might try to convert the nearly 300,000 reliable Republican voters likely to share her attitudes towards abortion.

The state’s same-day registration rules make modeling turnout here difficult, and also open up the prospect of late strategic shifts, especially for Democrats. If Clinton finds that Trump is eroding her party’s coalition, she could send her allies to flood Dane County—home of the main University of Wisconsin campus—with registration tables in a last-ditch effort to expand her pool of GOTV targets, among whom 150,000 are under the age of 35.

If a lot of those young voters stay on the fence pining for Sanders, Clinton may have to keep persuading them right up until Election Day. One possible tell that she’s still worried about shoring up the Sanders vote: late advertising on Madison television. Twenty-two percent of the voters whom Democrats need to turn out live in the capital’s media market, compared to 13 percent of Republican GOTV targets.

Minnesota

The Clinton campaign has classified Minnesota as a battleground state, even though it has seemed the least likely of all the blue states placed in that category to flip to red. (Obama won the state by nearly eight points in 2012.) The math helps to explain why a Republican has not won the state since 1972. Democrats have enough targets to define two distinct strategic paths: they can win by mobilizing their party’s existing coalition, or by picking up just 30 percent of persuadables. Arithmetic limits Trump’s options: If he turns out all the Republican GOTV targets in the state, he’d still need to carry half of persuadables

Tiny turnout universes (on both sides) means that there has been little need to develop field infrastructure, but the long early vote period—Minnesotans began casting ballots in person last week—gave the Clinton campaign reason to start the autumn already on guard. Her strategists felt that the same trends that could push states with comparable demographics (like neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin) in Trump’s direction would also be felt in Minnesota. 

But Minnesota persuadables, who are three-and-a-half times more likely than the GOP base to be under the age of 35, may contain a healthy percentage of Sanders holdouts, they are not a natural Trump demographic. This may be why Trump has been keeping a distance from Minnesota. He named a state director in August, but when he came to the state for a fundraiser five weeks ago, he didn't even schedule one of his beloved rallies. If Trump is serious about swinging Sanders sympathizers his way, this is a place where winning them over could be essential to his victory. Yet he and his allies have yet to air an ad in Minnesota.

This is the third in a series of eight Battlegrounds 2016 stories on the unique arithmetic that governs presidential elections in battleground states. Read more about how the battleground game is played.

—With assistance from Andre Tartar.

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