Mayors Get a Crash Course on What Resonates With Millennials

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A polling guru offered the city leaders advice on how to communicate with younger constituents.

Local elected leaders should look to a fresh slate of themes and ideas if they want to connect with young Americans, a well-known Republican pollster suggested to mayors on Monday.

Speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Boston, Frank Luntz presented survey data showing that “millennials” are skeptical of capitalism, corporations and federal lawmakers, and deeply concerned about income inequality—along with other findings.

Some of these views differ significantly from his findings in previous years and from the perspectives held by the nation’s overall population, which includes older Americans.

Luntz also claimed that young Americans are less likely than their elders to judge what someone else is saying based on that person’s race, ethnicity or gender. ("If you're 25 years-old, you don’t see ethnicity, you don’t see gender. You simply see people," he said.)

And he lamented the sharp divisions that have come to define the nation’s public discourse.

Eighty-one percent of all Americans now say the U.S. is the most divided it has been during their lifetimes, Luntz’s data showed. Half of all 18-29 year-olds, he added, have stopped talking to someone because of political differences. “This is really dangerous,” he told the mayors.

The Pew Research Center defines millennials as people born between 1981 and 1996, meaning the oldest in the demographic group would be 37 years-old this year. The survey results that Luntz referred to in his presentation didn’t always appear to align perfectly with that age range, skewing toward a younger group of people. 

Data that the polling guru displayed for the mayors showed that 58 percent of 18-29 year-olds (which he referred to as “millennials”) say that they prefer socialism as an economic system, as opposed to 33 percent who say they prefer capitalism.

"This blows me away,” Luntz said.

"This is how different the millennial generation is now from anyone previously," he said. "We've been asking this question since 1992. Back in '92 when Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush was running, it was only 32 percent that chose socialism. Each election cycle the percentage has gone higher and higher."

There were sharp party-line differences in the most recent data when it came to supporting socialism versus capitalism, according to the GOP pollster’s presentation.

Among respondents who identified as Democrats, 65 percent said they preferred socialism, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. The results were roughly reversed for those who favor capitalism, with 63 percent of Republicans in favor, compared to 26 percent of Democrats.

Asked about whether corporate America embodies everything that is “right” or “wrong” about America, 64 percent of all survey respondents defined as millennials said “wrong.”

Elected officials in the nation’s capital didn’t fare much better, with 59 percent of younger survey respondents saying that Washington, D.C. embodies everything that’s wrong about America.

Young adults in America, according to Luntz, identify income inequality, education, national security and preventing terrorism as leading priorities. That’s in contrast to the general population, which ranks government accountability, public spending and debt, along with health care, as top issues.

“Nothing matters more to young people than income inequality,” Luntz noted. “Because they feel like they're at the wrong end of that stick.”

One of Luntz’s claims to fame is his work on the messaging for the so-called Contract With America that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans championed in the mid-1990s. He has a reputation for being able to craft strategic language to sell political ideas.

For instance, he suggested during George W. Bush’s presidency that “climate change” sounded “less frightening” than “global warming.”

On Monday, he presented a slide to the mayors that featured “21 Words for the 21st Century.”

These included words and phrases like: “imagine,” “social responsibility,” “genuine opportunity,” “just do it/get it done,” “respect,” “work-life balance,” and “cleaner, safer, healthier.”

“Respect is the number one attribute that millennials want from their employer. It’s the number one attribute that they want from adults around them,” Luntz said. “It's the single word that elected officials are least likely to communicate.” Explaining the appeal of “just do it” or “get it done,” he added that young people “don’t want to wait until tomorrow.”

Luntz said his findings were based on survey results collected during the last six to seven months, with 1,200 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

He advised the mayors to “flip the communication on its head” if they want to connect with younger constituents.

“They don’t believe anything,” he said. “And they collect so much information that nothing really sticks.” But he said that face-to-face meetings, school visits, and listening and asking questions rather than talking at young adults could help on this front.

“We go to them,” he said. “We don’t expect them to come to us.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter with Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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