The Millennial Vote: In Conversation with The Atlantic’s Emma Green

Emma Green is a writer for The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion. She joined The Atlantic in June 2012 and has written on everything from the current presidential race to religious communities’ responses to issues like climate change and marriage equality. Green is a graduate of Georgetown University and a Tennessee native. After the University of Chicago Institute of Politics’ GenForward event, which asked speakers to analyze survey results and discuss their impact on the 2016 presidential race, Green sat down with the Gate’s Dylan Stafford to discuss her views on election survey data.

The Gate: According to the most recent GenForward survey data from September 2016, young adults of color (ages 18–30) are backing Clinton far more than Trump. Meanwhile, young whites are split in their support for the two candidates. Yet only about half of all respondents said they were planning on voting for either Clinton or Trump this election. What is going on? Are we getting a better of sense of what these voters will do on Election Day?

Emma Green: I think what we’re seeing in GenForward as a survey, but also in the broader demographic patterns in elections, is that young people don’t vote. In fact, it’s old people who vote, and it’s mostly old white people who vote. This is really important in trying to measure the gap between some of what we see in opinion polls and what we’re actually going to see on Election Day. I think it’s still an open question. The last weeks of the election could have a lot to do with whether young people feel motivated to actually get out to the polls. It’s unclear what will actually happen.

Gate: There’s been a lot of talk this cycle about the degree to which millennials are backing third-party candidates. Some polls have found that upward of 40 percent of young voters will vote for either Johnson or Stein, while the GenForward data seems to show that that figure is much smaller, somewhere in the ballpark of 15 percent. Which dataset is closer to reality?

Green: The way that the GenForward survey is structured gets into some of the breakdowns among racial groups that show significant differences in the number of young white voters and, for example, young black voters, and whom they’re going to be voting for. I would say that the GenForward survey estimate of around 15 percent is probably closer. I also think that there’s a big difference between what people will say to pollsters when they get called up for an opinion survey and what they eventually do when they’re at the ballot box. There are a lot of reluctant voters in this election. Ultimately, there will be people who may say that they’re going to cast a “protest vote” for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or whomever, and they’re actually going to get to the ballot box and maybe decide that they want to pick one of the two candidates who will eventually be president.

Gate: The GenForward data also found that young people of color are more optimistic about their economic futures than young white people are. What do you make of this? How does this finding interact with the cultural and racial tensions we’ve witnessed this election cycle?

Green: Yeah, the optimism question was one of the most fascinating ones. Another fact that I find interesting from the survey was that Asian-American young people were the least optimistic. About a quarter of them indicated that they were either somewhat, very, or extremely pessimistic about their futures. They were, to some order of magnitude, more pessimistic than black young people, which is so fascinating. The answer as to “why” is extraordinarily complex when you’re talking about something that’s as ephemeral as a feeling of outlook.

One thing that we talked about during the panel was the possibility that the Obama presidency sort of set a curve of hope and optimistic outlook for young people who are African-American. However, I think it’s hard to tell what makes a group of people feel as though they have a potential for the future. That’s so difficult to unpack. That’s why, to sort of put a pitch in here, polling can only get us so far. Ultimately, we have to do some sort of reporting and talk to people on the ground to understand what they think.

Gate: Recently, you wrote in The Atlantic about many of the frustrations that some women voters seem to have with Clinton. A lot of their lack of enthusiasm seems to revolve around a perception that Clinton is unable to relate to their experiences or that her triumphs do not necessarily represent their own. Can you talk more about this disconnect?

Green: Throughout the Clinton campaign, but particularly since she has been the Democratic nominee, there has been a lot of attention paid to a narrative of feminist progress. The historical narrative often spans from Seneca Falls, through suffrage, through the equal rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, to today.

In fact, that narrative itself leaves out a lot of women. For example, black women were not participants at Seneca Falls when the Declaration of Sentiments was put together. A lot of women of color weren’t yet enfranchised when women earned the right to vote. And so, we’re seeing a lot of that reflected in the electorate, with women who feel as though they’re being swept into this big box. 51 percent of the electorate is women. Hillary Clinton represents women, but in reality, there’s a lot of diversity in how women feel about their own connection to feminism, their own sense of advancement, and also who represents them. I think Hillary Clinton is limited in certain ways—just by definition. She is an older, white woman who is wealthy, very well-educated, and has circulated in powerful circles for her entire life. That in itself creates a disconnect to a lot of women voters who might not feel as though they see themselves in her.

Gate: What are some of the differences in how younger and older women view Clinton and her candidacy?

Green: I recently did an interview with an author of a book who wrote about co-education on elite college campuses—you know, how women were actually brought into the fold. And she had all of these horrifying anecdotes about women whose bust sizes were published in the Daily Princetonian. And that was just how it was. Keep the Damned Women Out was the title of the book, and that was what one alum had said when they were talking about Dartmouth. In any case, to me, that sort of speaks to it. That’s when Hillary Clinton was on campus. That’s what women of her generation know about what the world was at one time. To them, I think this represents something much different than it does for younger women who have, in a lot of ways, been the beneficiaries of their gains.

Gate: Trump has talked increasingly in recent days about an unsubstantiated concern that this election will be rigged. How do you see this affecting young people’s already shaky confidence in our democratic processes?

Green: I should start by saying that the claim that the election is rigged is one of the most dangerous claims that you can make because the peaceful transition of power is the fundamental and core sign of a stable democracy. Undermining that is just enormously threatening to the rule of law and to a belief in polity. More broadly, it does speak to a sort of cynicism that is pretty prevalent among young people. This is not only about Donald Trump; it’s also about Hillary Clinton. Seventy percent of young people don’t think Hillary Clinton is trustworthy, and 80 percent of [young] people don’t think Donald Trump is trustworthy. In general, that “rigged” narrative really speaks to cynicism about untrustworthiness.

Gate: As a journalist who has covered this campaign talking to voters, what gives you hope for the future of American politics?

Green: Oh my god—do I have to hope?

Gate: Or you can have none—either way!

Green: Okay, so something I’m hopeful about is that I have become more and more convinced of the unimportance of the presidency—which is not to speak in too much hyperbole, because of course the presidency matters. Of course, it is a symbolic and cultural office. Of course, politically, it wields enormous power militarily and diplomatically. I think that’s the most unambiguous realm where the president really can make a difference.

However, there’s just so much political and cultural life that’s not in Washington and not on the federal level. In fact, state and local politics are really important—they’re probably more important than federal politics because that’s where a lot of the action happens. Percentage-wise, there is significantly less attention that’s paid to those political races, and also to the things that are going on in those political spheres. It’s hopeful to me to know that people are working on a lot of different issues in a lot of different communities, which isn’t necessarily reflected by all of the noxiousness that happens on the federal level.