Hillary Clinton’s in trouble with the young. It’s not that they’re flocking to Donald Trump, who trails her in every poll of millennial voters. Instead, she’s losing their allegiance to Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.
The oddity - and potentially, the tragedy - of all this is that many young Americans’ defining beliefs are dismissed or opposed by libertarians generally and Johnson in particular. But then, Johnson’s appeal is less a testament to the popularity or credibility of his program than to the fact that he’s become the none-of-the-above option for disgruntled citizens.
The recent Battleground Poll of swing states makes clear the extent of Clinton’s woes. When compared only to Trump, Clinton performed well among millennials: 68 percent trusted her more than him to defend the middle class, 64 percent to handle foreign policy, and 61 percent to manage the economy. But in a four-way contest with Trump, Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, she commanded just 46 percent support, with 26 percent for Trump, 18 percent for Johnson and 5 percent for Stein. In every poll that has broken down its respondents by age, Johnson’s level of support among the young is several times higher than among their elders.
Because Clinton appears to lose more votes to Johnson than Trump does, those who opt for the pox-on-both-your-houses candidate could well put the Republican in the White House.
Clinton has responded to her millennial deficit by talking to audiences of college students about Trump’s racism and xenophobia, and by sending Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to campaign for her in swing states. She needs to do more: affirming and reaffirming her support for free public college tuition for poor and middle-class students, for raising the minimum wage, for clean energy and tighter environmental regulations to arrest climate change. But that won’t suffice, either.
To date, the case that Clinton and her advocates are making to the young stresses the vast differences in policy and temperament that separate her from her Republican opponent, and that voting for Johnson only helps Trump. It’s understandable that her campaign hasn’t gone after Johnson - that would only raise his profile and give him more credibility. But there’s much he’s proposing that would be anathema to millennials if they only knew about it. Somebody needs to call that to their attention.
To be sure, Johnson supports the legalization of marijuana - way cool. Less cool is his position on climate change. Although he acknowledges that it is both real and at least partly man-made, he believes government should take no action against it, leaving the solution, in the classic libertarian manner, to the market and the private sector. As if it weren’t the private sector, in response to the market’s incentives, which created global warming in the first place.
Then there’s Johnson’s position on what government can do to make college more affordable and enable students to matriculate without piling up mountains of debt. Or, more accurately, the absence of a position. He doesn’t have one, since the very idea of such government interference runs counter to the libertarian creed.
Or consider Johnson’s tax plan, which calls for eliminating the income tax and substituting a national sales tax - a massive shift of the tax burden away from the wealthy to the 90 percent, a group that includes the overwhelming majority of 20-somethings.
While Clinton campaigns against Trump, who will wage the campaign to win back her potential supporters who have strayed to Johnson?
There is, in fact, already a large-scale independent campaign on her behalf that targets young people in eight swing states, and it is funded by Tom Steyer, the California billionaire, mega-donor to environmental and other progressive causes, and possible candidate for governor in 2018. In partnership with the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups, Steyer is funding nearly 40 percent of a $55 million campaign to win young people’s votes for Clinton - focusing, as he recently told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, on issues of "economic justice, environmental justice (and) racial justice."
That’s a focus that allows for plenty of positive contrasts between Clinton and Trump. Not to mention Clinton and Johnson.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times’ opinion section.