This election could see a millennial wave

Was the Pressley victory the canary in the coal mine?

THE POLITICAL SPIN CYCLE moves at exponential speeds these days. Where once Republicans were unenthusiastic, now they are supposedly ready to charge to the polls.  And millennials, chronically disinterested in the mid-terms, are suddenly alive.

According to a recent Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll, 40 percent of 18- to 29-year olds (a younger subset of millennials) indicate that they are likely to vote next week.   Since 1986, the only times that midterm turnout among young Americans surpassed 20 percent was in 1986 (21 percent) and 1994 (21 percent).

For some, millennial intensity is a surprise. But for those of us in Massachusetts, late young-voter enthusiasm should be no shock.

On September 4, the day after Labor Day, when pollsters and pundits expected millennials to be sleeping off their hangovers on the Cape, 103,000 voters poured into the electorate – roughly 30,000 more than even the most aggressive turnout models had predicted – propelling Ayanna Pressley to a surprising 18-point win.

And the majority of the “new” voters were millennials.  African American turnout was sluggish at best; in Roxbury, for instance, 18 percent fewer voters turned out than in last year’s mayoral race. Meanwhile, in Somerville, the once reliable blue-collar city, now home primarily to college students, post-grad hipsters, and highly paid tech workers, 18,000 people voted, roughly 45 percent more than the usual 10,000 to 12,000 who turn out for such races.  Capuano eked out a slim 137-vote victory in the thriving progressive center he helped create when he was mayor in the 1990s.

Capuano’s supporters did come out – he garnered 42,000 votes district-wide, more than anyone would have predicted.  But they were swamped by the “new” voters – younger people who share a more zealous, activist, and sometimes strident progressivism, committed to turning politics on its head, no matter the cost.

Base on neighborhood breakdowns, they voted overwhelmingly for Pressley, who had the generational and political dexterity to tap into their activist ethos, and they rebuked the 20-year incumbent Capuano, as reliable a progressive as one could find in Congress.

Hindsight being 20-20, the shift was foreshadowed in 2016, when Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 15 points in Somerville and ran strong in progressive neighborhoods across the city.

That enthusiasm translated into the 2017 municipal elections, when turnout was also high and three outsiders won seats on the Cambridge City Council and an African American woman, Lydia Edwards, was elected city councilor for Charlestown – a section of Boston so well-known for its heretofore white, tough-guy persona that two Hollywood crime thrillers, Mystic River and The Town, were set in the neighborhood.

At the same time, legacy Sanders groups helped bring 17,000 people out to vote in the Somerville municipal election (a 40 percent jump over 2015), using affordable housing, green initiatives, and other big-picture issues to shock the establishment, ousting four incumbents on the 11-member board.

In the short period between the relatively tame 2014-2015 election period, when turnout numbers were “normal” or even low and incumbents were largely unchallenged, and the 2016-2018 elections, a switch had been flicked across the Boston area.  Progressive activism had taken on a new fervor, a new commitment, and younger voters were leading the charge.

Pressley’s result, as well as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s stunning win, also powered in part by a millennial surge, raise questions about turnout models for young voters nationwide.  Maybe millennials lie in wait, enthusiastic but not quite plugged in until late in the game, when the national press descends on a local race and produces stories that bounce around the digital ether, creating conditions just right to create a storm of late-breaking younger voters.

Some analysts might write off the Massachusetts or New York results as unique to the circumstances: Both were majority-minority districts represented by long-time incumbent white men. Both districts featured exceptionally gentrified neighborhoods, where millennials are tightly bunched and count political activism as part of their bohemian identities. Such conditions perhaps can’t be mimicked in, say, Orange County or suburban Kansas City.

But places like Boston could also be the canaries in the coal mine. Many young voters across the country are legacy Sanders voters and they are likely to be as left-leaning and committed as those who voted in Massachusetts. More important, if young progressives were incited here to vote in a primary and throw out a reliable liberal like Capuano, imagine how they will feel when they get a shot at Donald Trump and, by proxy, Bret Kavanaugh.

Meet the Author

Mark Horan

Political consultant, Worked with campaign of US Rep. Michael Capuano
Given the vitriol Trump has poured into the electoral system in just the last several weeks, betting against millennial turnout would seem a risky wager.  Even given the ginned-up Trump base, it seems more likely that young voters will surge for Democrats and upend turnout models across the country, creating their own small but powerful blue wave.  Millennials have gotten a bad rap for not being reliable voters.  This time, they may finally shatter that myth.

Mark Horan was a consultant to the Capuano campaign and has worked on campaigns for a number of causes and candidates, including those of US Senator Ed Markey and former vice president Joe Biden.