Millennials Are Unreliable Voters But Key To Victory In Ontario Election Thursday

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 3, 2018.

Here we go again. Yet another article penned on the generation that’s most fascinated with itself: millennials.

A source of endless interest for a media transfixed by this new generation that has vastly different interests and expectations than the generations before them.

Some, no, many, would argue that more ink has been spilled on the interests of this group than is reasonable. Think piece after think piece has been churned out by magazines. Hour after hour of electronic media time has been devoted to their interest in artisanal coffee and their constant need for validation.

But what’s unavoidable is that the generation has, in many ways, been responsible for reshaping the world we live in: forcing more flexible work hours, shifting our definitions of a family units and dooming golf courses and fast-food restaurants, just to name a few.

Pundits have predicted for years that politics would be reshaped by millennials in much the same manner.

Polling tells us millennials tend to be far more progressive than older generations and, accordingly, their political preferences lie overwhelmingly with the Liberals and New Democrats.

The thinking has been that these millennials will create a strong leftward shift in Canada’s political system as they engage with it.

But so far, political parties have only been able to rely on one thing: millennials are unreliable.

While these millennials are informed, research shows that they are far more likely to engage and get involved with issue-based organizations or advocacy rather than participate in their parents’ formal political processes.

Fickle supporters who are have shown themselves to be unlikely to turn out to the polls even once their minds are made up, millennials are an unstable bloc of voters. In fact, their participation has been middling in nearly every election so far.

It almost seems trite to say, but political parties are, fundamentally, based on voting coalitions. That’s how they amass enough supporters to win a significant chunk of the vote. And when a significant chunk of potential voters chooses to opt out of the system, political parties opt out of appealing to them.

That’s not to say they have never made a mark. The last federal election saw the first meaningful engagement of millennials in the electoral system. And it made a difference in the results.

Turnout in the last federal election surged nine points to nearly 70 per cent from 61 per cent in 2011, largely on the back of millennial dislike of both Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

And it cost Harper his job.

We saw a similar phenomenon in Barack Obama‘s elections in 2008 and 2012. Youth turnout exploded to bring the dream of a transformative presidency to life – only to see millennial engagement plummet during the mid-terms, handing Obama a Congress fully controlled by the Republicans.

We know that, historically, as voters have grown older, their engagement in the democratic process has grown as well. And in this provincial election, millennials, in their own way, may prove this point.

Andrea Horwath and the NDP should hope that millennials, who now outnumber baby boomers and are themselves growing older, will choose to vote this time out for the first time. Polling tells us that Horwath’s path to victory is paved with millennial support.

With promises of rent control, public daycare and the conversion of student loans to grants, Horwath has demonstrated her commitment to driving that turnout.

Her hope is that these signals will not only generate enthusiasm among millennial voters but will get them to the polls.

The Progressive Conservatives, conversely, have little to gain from millennials. That’s why they have chosen to campaign on tax cuts, lower gas prices and relief on hydro pricing.

The two strategies reflect who the parties believe they need to appeal to.

Horwath’s path, as shown by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s large majority in 2015, can be one of high reward.

But as all too many politicians can tell you, basing a campaign on millennial support is far from a sure bet.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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