The main thrust of Sen. Marco Rubio’s bid for president is also his most visible feature. He’s young, he looks young, and he begins and ends almost every speech with a call for change—partisan, ideological, and generational. “Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past,” he said in his announcement speech in April. “The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country,” he declared to listeners at the Values Voter Summit in September.
It’s the right play for this political environment. Democrats need large margins with young voters to win the White House. But they have a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who doesn’t energize the young students and professionals who helped Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. As with other groups that lean Democratic, Rubio doesn’t have to win young voters. He just can’t afford to lose them all. If he manages that, he charts an easier path to the presidency.
A new NBC poll reveals just that. The headline number shows the Florida senator with the win: At this moment, if all adults had to choose, Rubio would beat Clinton, 48 percent to 45 percent. And while Clinton has an advantage with blacks and Latinos, she ties Rubio among Americans who are 18 to 34 years old, 45 percent to 45 percent. As Greg Sargent notes for the Washington Post, this comes after a recent poll from Quinnipiac University that shows a narrow race between Rubio and Clinton among young voters, and it comes as Team Clinton fights for support among millennials—and young women in particular—who aren’t thrilled with Hillary, even as she vies to be the first female president.
All of this analysis comes with the usual caveats: Most Americans, including most voters, aren’t following the presidential election, and are choosing—again, in the moment—on feeling and affect. And these polls—like most polls at this stage—aren’t predictive. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. That Rubio ties Clinton with young voters tells us about the senator’s potential strength in a general election, and the secretary’s ongoing fight to build enthusiasm for her campaign.
It also raises a question: Why, exactly, are young voters attracted to Rubio? There’s a reason observers occasionally call Rubio a “young fogey.” His rhetoric aside, the Florida senator offers policies on issues like same-sex marriage that appeal the most to the oldest and most traditional Americans. Seventy percent of millennials and 59 percent of those in Generation X support marriage for same-sex couples, but on Sunday, Rubio criticized the 5–4 decision that legalized same-sex marriage and promised to “appoint Supreme Court justices that will interpret the Constitution as originally constructed.” Likewise, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he promised to rescind an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. On everything from drug policy (he opposes loosening marijuana laws) to the minimum wage, Rubio is out of step with the youngest Americans. So, why the appeal?
It’s possible that this has less to do with Rubio than it does the composition of the youth vote, and the circumstances of those voters. The young people who will vote in the 2016 election aren’t the same ones who voted in 2008 and 2012. Overall, according to the Pew Research Center, millennials lean Democratic. But the youngest millennials are more Republican than their older peers (although still largely Democratic), and that’s especially true for white millennials, who are more conservative than their black, Latino, and Asian counterparts.
Put differently, the most liberal millennials are those that came of age under President George W. Bush, while the most conservative ones are those that came of political age under President Obama and have faced a sluggish and stagnant economy. Far from embracing Rubio and the Republican Party, these voters may just be skeptical of the Democratic Party’s ability to deliver economic growth and opportunity. To this point, the November unemployment rate was 15.3 percent for people aged 18 to 19, and 9.6 percent for people aged 20 to 24.
If today’s polling snapshot shows anthing, it’s that Republicans can capitalize on this economic disadvantage. Of course, there’s no doubt that Team Clinton knows this. So as Republicans begin to make an economic pitch to those left out of the Obama recovery, expect Democrats to take a two-pronged approach. First, to tout their economic policies—universal child care, higher minimum wages, and more assistance for college—and to emphasize the distance between the Republican Party and young people on social issues that, for many, are potential deal breakers.