Dana Perino: Debate Prep 2016 -- Selfie sticks, bitmoji pantsuits and the millennial vote

Millennials – How much do presidential candidates need them?

Let us count the ways.

The nation’s largest generation – nearly ninety million of them – are now of voting age.

But will they vote? And for whom?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump know they need a solid portion of those votes in order to win a close election, so they’ve been trying to earn millennials’ affection.

It turns out that millennials aren’t an easy catch. They’re both apprehensive and excited about the future but they dislike both of the candidates.

Yet it turns out that millennials aren’t an easy catch. They’re both apprehensive and excited about the future, but they dislike both of these candidates. They don’t trust them (this is not an age-dependent concern, however). There’s concern, particularly by Democrats, that millennials won’t turn out in large numbers on election day.

But it isn’t that millennials don’t want to vote – they just want to vote for someone they believe in.

There is trouble brewing for the Clinton campaign with this generation. Quinnipiac found in August that Clinton had a twenty-four-point lead over Donald Trump among 18-to-34-year-old voters, 48 percent to 24 percent. Now that lead has shrunk to a mere five percentage points (31 – 26 percent).

Where are the millennials going? Not necessarily to Trump, but to Gary Johnson. A recent Michigan poll has Trump and Johnson tied with young voters, and Quinnipiac shows Johnson ahead of Trump with millennial voters in a national poll.

So will this week’s debate help this generation decide whom they’ll vote for? Perhaps. But to earn their support, both Trump and Clinton need to do a better job. And quickly.

How NOT to Win Over Millennial Voters:

I talk about millennials with a healthy dose of humility as I’m a card carrying member of Generation X. But I have daily interaction with young people at Dana Perino & Co., through my Minute Mentoring organization, with digital friends on social media, and especially at Fox News. I have come to admire this generation. They are smart and outgoing, kind and ambitious, and I see them work hard every day. Millennials are the future of our country and of our political parties, and they shouldn’t be unfairly characterized or labeled. They deserve to be heard.

So with that, here are my “don’ts” for presidential campaigns on reaching out to millennials during the final days of this election:

Don’t rely on emojis to convey your message

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, her attempts at millennial outreach are both impressive and extensive. From her Snapchat account, to her plan to make college debt-free, to her affinity for bitmoji’s and emoji’s alike, she has made millennial outreach a key component of her campaign strategy. However, she might have better learned from her Q&A on Twitter last summer (when she invited students to describe their feelings on student loan debt in emojis [#emojigate]), that it’s best not to try and relate to millennials by attempting to act like them (enter “the cool mom” of the movie "Mean Girls").

It’s not just about creating the pathways necessary to communicate with millennials, mainly through social media avenues like Snapchat and Facebook, you need to make them want to communicate with you. A key component of social media is “following” – and no one is there to see what you have to say on Instagram or Twitter if they aren’t motivated to follow you. It’s not just about opening the channels of communication, it’s about enticing millennials to add Hillary on Snapchat and Instagram, or to download her bitmoji keyboard (complete with pantsuits!).

The best way to do that, is to appeal to this age group in a way that gets their attention to what you have to say, and keeps them engaged enough with tailored content so that they continue to follow you (millennials love to unfollow people they cease to amuse them). Therein lies Hillary Clinton’s “millennial problem.”

If Hillary let her walls down and expressed herself more – whether via social media or on the debate stage – and showed millennials who she really is, then that might help her relate better to this generation. Millennials can smell inauthenticity a mile away, so don’t try and be someone you’re not.

Don’t expect them to know why America needs to be great “again”       

Trump’s campaign slogan resonates strongly with a large population of Americans. “Make America Great Again” portrays a nostalgia for what America once was, and a longing desire to return to that time. Millennials unfortunately don’t know first-hand that time which Trump is talking about. These are the kids born between the early 1980s and the late 1990’s – they are too young to be nostalgic yet.

While millennials worry they won’t be as successful as their parents were due to an economic recession since 2008, they are optimistic and hopeful about the future. A 2014 Pew Research Survey finds they are more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with nearly fifty percent of millennials believing the country’s best years are ahead, a view less popular with older generations.

These young voters believe hard work and creative thinking can get them where they want to be, and as it did for their career idols like Mark Zuckerburg. To them, America is still a pretty great place to live.

Don’t tell them what not to do

Telling millennials not to vote for one candidate because they are a “worse” candidate than you are is not a convincing strategy.

This is a generation that doesn’t find most politicians sincere or trustworthy. In fact, in a recent Quinnipiac Survey, 77% of millennials said Hillary “was not honest and trustworthy.”

The 2016 presidential race has turned into a choice determined on character, instead of a choice between ideologies and policies. Ideas are what inspire people to vote for one candidate over the other, not coercion based on fear of what will happen if the other person is elected.

Both candidates should strive to inspire millennials through their character, ideas and values. They won’t be scared into voting against someone.

If you want them to vote, stop talking about how they never come out to vote

If there is one thing millennials dislike more than slow internet, it’s being labeled or categorized. They don’t even like to be grouped under the “millennial” category. According to a Pew Research Survey, “just 40% of adults ages 18 to 34 consider themselves part of the ‘millennial generation.’”

So you can bet that they do not like being stereotyped as a generation that doesn’t come out to vote.

If that was the case, then what was 2008 about? Exhibit A: Obama’s message of real change in Washington and sincere hope inspired millennials across the country to head to the polls on election day. According to Pew Research Center, “the high-water mark for millennials was the 2008 election, when 50% of eligible millennials voted.”

In that election, exit polls found that millennial voters preferred Obama over Clinton by a margin of fifty-eight percent to thirty-eight percent. This year, exit polls show that Sanders beat Clinton among millennials in all twenty-seven primaries/caucuses (with exit polls) except for Alabama and Mississippi.

Maybe it’s the player, not the game…

Besides, younger generations have always been slow to hit the polls. Recall in 1992 when MTV (when it still played music) launched their “Choose or Lose” campaign during the presidential election, sparking political awareness by engaging young people in politics through encouraging voter registration, highlighting issues of the day – and why they mattered to young voters, and de-mystifying the political process. And you know what, it did help!

So maybe it’s not on the backs of millennials to come out and vote in an election where the candidates combined are the oldest presidential nominees we have ever had. If millennials feel unrepresented in this election, can we blame them? Maybe politicians just need to try a little harder and take the time to learn about this new generation, and how to connect with them.


In order to make a play for the coveted votes of America’s the Snap-chatting, selfie-taking, sushi-eating, age group, you need to understand what drives them first.

As a result of their diversity, millennials don’t see immigration as a cultural threat. A diverse melting pot of immigrants is the norm for this age group, and they do not share the cultural anxiety that older generations have. Immigration reform is not a political issue that resonates with this age group. They have grown up in a different world than generations before them.

They are incredibly tolerant, and think of racism as something from the past that no longer exists. Roughly one-third of them are parents, and last year ninety percent of babies born were to millennial parents. Working from home, paid family leave, childcare, and vacation days to spend time with their family and friends are very important to them.

They have lived through the greatest recession since the Great Depression, at a time when many of them were graduating college in search of paid employment. They fearfully watched their parents lose their jobs and comfortable lifestyle during the financial crisis. A product of their environment, millennials are fiscally conservative, mindful of debt, – particularly student loan debt – and yet through it all, they remain optimistic of a bright future.

Growing up in an era of uber, tinder, and 140 characters on twitter, millennials communicate and see the world differently than older generations do. I don’t envy campaigns in trying to communicate with four distinct generations at once, but I understand how important it is to do so.

Monday’s debate gives both campaigns a reason to redouble their efforts. It’s in their selfie interest.