Do Millennials Even Remember President Bill Clinton?
What is former President Bill Clinton's election endorsement worth to people who were toddlers or teens during his time in office?
Joseph F. Coughlin is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab (http://agelab.mit.edu). His research explores how demographic change, technology and consumer behavior drive innovations in business and society. Coughlin teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloan School's Advanced Management Program. He is author of the new book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017).
2016 is all about the presidential election. Generational politics is, as some might say, a “yuge” issue this year. Millennials - Americans that today are between 19 and 36 years old - were key to President Obama’s win in 2008. And getting out the Millennial vote will figure prominently in the calculus of both Democrats and Republicans in 2016.
A key strategy for both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton will be to receive the enthusiastic endorsement and active campaigning of key national leaders. Receiving the support of a popular sitting or former president has always been considered the gold standard of political endorsements.
Hillary Clinton has not one, but two, former presidents vigorously supporting her candidacy. President Obama is enjoying high approval ratings for a president in the last months of office and will clearly be a powerful source of support. However, as a sitting president he is also open to fair and unfair criticism that results from ongoing policy debate and events.
That leaves President Bill Clinton, who has the patina of a former president without the taint of current issues. Secretary Clinton is relying on her husband to get out the vote and fire up the base. A famously skilled and effective campaigner, former President Clinton will be a key asset on the stump – but will he fire up Millennial voters?
Although clouded by scandal, Clinton’s 1992-2000 term coincided with strong economic growth. The nation was host to a series of tech and Internet miracles, and general economic growth blossomed in that period. During the Clinton administration, nearly 22 million jobs were added to the US economy. Clearly, Secretary Clinton is going to leverage her husband’s economic success as a promise of things to come if she is elected. In fact, she has already announced that he would play a role in developing economic policy for her administration.
But do Millennials remember President Bill Clinton? While the economic numbers during his term are compelling, Millennials may not be able to connect the man to the stats. Generational cohort theory argues that a generation is not just a group of people of a certain age, but rather a cohort defined by shared experiences during a formative period of development. While events, new information and general context can affect a generation’s worldview over time, shared experiences during the late teens and early 20s are the key shaper of generational attitudes (and preferences) in later life.
What might generational cohort theory say about Millennial memories of President Clinton and his potential electoral influence? According to Pew, the Millennials, or those born between about 1980 and 1997, match the Baby Boomers in the number of eligible voters this year – nearly 70 million. If one divides the Millennials into a younger and older group, there are at least two political historical memories in what most political pundits are calling one generation.
The younger group was born between 1989 and 1997, making up adults that are now between 19 and 27 years old. Their memories of President Bill Clinton’s presidency are from when they were toddlers and pre-teens. If generational cohort theory is correct about when this group’s attitudes were forged (late teens to early 20s), these Millennials are very unlikely to have been imprinted by the Clinton Presidency - no more than the youngest Baby Boomers can claim to have been influenced by President Lyndon Johnson.
Even the oldest Millennials that are now between the ages of 28 and 36 years old may have difficulty remembering the Clinton White House years or the surrounding economic climate. Those Millennials now in their mid-30s were only 18 during President Clinton’s last year of office in 1998. For these older Millennials, the Clinton years are more likely to be based on a high school current-events project than a fond early adulthood memory.
Two insights might be drawn from some basic math and history. First, calling 70 million of anything (let alone voters) one group is foolhardy at best, an indicator of lazy thinking. Second, President Clinton might be an incredibly valuable asset in persuading younger voters to vote Democratic, but it won’t be because of his economic track record - which is a matter of history that few Millennials can recall firsthand. If Bill is able to help reach Millennial hearts and minds, it will not be by the past feats of his administration, but by his lasting power to connect with his audience.
This latter point goes to explain the success Senator Bernie Sanders has had in connecting with the Millennials. Sanders does not discuss history. He does not dwell on what may have worked before or point to a track record. Instead, he connects on what is urgent and salient to Millennials today. Despite having 74 years under his belt, he makes himself fit into the now by campaigning on issues such as jobs, student loans, income inequality, etc. – issues that touch voters whether they are 19 or 36 years old. Perhaps a lesson for both political consultants and marketers of all stripes is that generational marketing is important as long as your generation can remember and relate to your narrative. Will the Millennials give Bill Clinton a chance to play a major role in their own generational story? We will see in November.
Photo by Carolyn Cole Getty Images
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