Hillary Clinton’s campaign has enlisted a new recruit in its bid to win over young voters: Al Gore.
On Wednesday, news surfaced that the former vice president and failed 2000 presidential candidate will be stumping for the Democratic nominee in a bid to shore up Clinton’s flagging support with millennials — which has been a surprisingly challenging demographic for her.
CNN reports that the Clinton campaign is hoping Gore’s persona as a climate change activist will appeal to young voters who list this as a core issue. (Depending on which poll you look at, Clinton is still running anywhere from 15 to close to 30 points behind Barack Obama among the youngest voting bloc, with upward of 40 percent of them defecting to third parties.)
Young people really do tend to be more concerned with climate change than most of their elders. So the idea that Clinton’s team wants to leverage Gore to talk about her willingness to fight global warming — which stands in stark contrast to the positions of Donald Trump or Gary Johnson — isn’t totally ridiculous.
Why Al Gore is a strange choice to fix Clinton’s millennial problem
But there are also a few pretty massive problems with the theory that Gore is the right messenger.
For one, the millennials most likely to have any personal connection to Gore as a public figure are the young voters already likely to vote for Clinton. Clinton is performing relatively well among “older millennials” — or those roughly ages 26 to 35. It’s the “young millennials,” those ages 18 to 25, who are turning away from the Democratic Party’s nominee.
This second group likely doesn’t have much of a grasp of Gore’s story — after all, most of them were toddlers when the Bill Clinton–Al Gore ticket first ran, in elementary school during the 2000 recount, and in middle school for the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth.
“There’s not a lot of reason to believe they do know him,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, a Tufts University researcher on youth politics at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “It is … an interesting choice.”
Choosing the right messenger may not be Clinton’s real problem
But the much bigger problem here is that the Clinton campaign’s decision suggests a broader misunderstanding of what young people are looking for in their presidential candidates.
Overwhelmingly, the youngest voters are rejecting what they view as “establishment” politicians — those they see as connected to Washington, according to multiple leading researchers on youth voting patterns. Experts believe this is partly what’s causing Clinton’s lack of appeal with young voters in the first place — they despise both Wall Street and Washington, and they see Clinton as enmeshed in both. “(Clinton’s) been part of the establishment for the entire lifetime of millennials — an establishment represented by their government as well as Wall Street,” says John Della Volpe, a Harvard researcher.
For all his crusading against climate change, Gore reeks of this same kind of establishment politics. He was elected to Congress in the 1970s and spent decades on the upper rungs of the Democratic Party. He was vice president for eight years. Since leaving government, he’s served as a board member of Apple, as a senior adviser to Google, and as a partner at a venture capital fund. Gore has been at the center of efforts to advance “public-private partnerships.” Even his biggest fans wouldn’t say he’s exactly a fresh face.
Young people have made clear they’re looking for an outsider who stands beyond the existing power structures of the political parties and of Washington. Regardless of whatever other good he’s done, Gore doesn’t fit that bill.
“A better strategy might be to focus on young people who are leaders in their age group — younger activists who aren’t themselves elected politicians,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “These older leaders will be a tough sell for young voters.”