What the Occupy Movement Means for the Millennial Vote in 2012

Strategic branding is based on insights about the audience you want to reach. To create a meaningful brand, you first need to understand what is meaningful to your target. For Obama and the Republican Presidential candidates, The Occupy Wall Street movement reveals a lot about what the Millennial market is thinking.

Why Millennials Matter

The Millennial vote will be pivotal to winning the election in 2012, just as they were in 2008.  In 2008, Millennials made up 17% of the electorate. Collectively, they accounted for a significant part of Barack Obama’s national popular vote.

In 2012, even more Millennials will be of legal voting age. Millennials are projected to make up nearly one fourth of the electorate next November. Many of these young voters will be casting ballots for the first time, and are likely to be more ‘independent’ than partisan.  Nevertheless, Pew figures from November 2011 show Obama with a 26 point lead over Mitch Romney among 18-29 year olds in a hypothetical match-up.  A lot will depend on how many Millennials actually show up to vote as well as what both candidates do to capture their attention in the next 12 months.

Millennial Mood Shift

In the recession-dominated four years since the last Presidential election, Gen Y has gone from being optimistic and ‘hopeful’ to discouraged and angry.  The shift seemed to have happened quite suddenly, triggered by the realization that trillions of stimulus dollars, gigantic industry takeovers and costly bank bailouts were insufficient to create  jobs and give young adults a toehold in the economy.

Why ‘sudden’? Even as little as a year ago, I would never have predicted anything like the Occupy Wall Street movement. In fact, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert launched their “Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear” in Washington DC last October, I wondered whether it would resonate with a generation notable for its lack of protest and desire to work within the system to create change:

“… the truth is, this generation does care. They are caring by not participating, by disassociating. Stewart also understands this; he gets their approach. They are conservative liberals. They want to change the system without marching down Main Street. Without lowering themselves to the same tactics, name calling and bickering they detest. It’s hard to have a voice when you are disgusted by the tone of the conversation. So instead of joining, they are quiet rebels who challenge the status quo by the way they live, not how they protest. …. The “Rally to Restore Sanity” was a TV staged event they attended, not a grass roots rally they created. Just like Demand TV or ITunes, it was offered up and they clicked “attend.”

When you’re hurting, inequity is an easy concept to grasp — just ask any four year old.  In 2011, evidence of unfairness was easy to find.  The concept that lit the spark was growing lopsidedness in wealth distribution. The target of resentment was easy to find, as well – Wall Street. The way money is made by corporate fat cats and Wall Street bankers became the focus of Millennial discontent, not those who set the rules in Washington. This is good for Obama, and bad for Republicans who are more associated with the 1% than the 99%.

What It Will Take to Win With Millennials

Winning with Millennials will require either championing the idea of inequality, or refocusing the dialog. Obama seems to understand this with his recent populist stance and anti-business actions, like the decision to block the Keystone Pipeline and the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.  The Wall Street Journal writes, “The deal landed just as the Obama administration was rolling into its rel-election campaign, which, amid a depresssed economy, will be about vilifying big business and playing to economic pessimism.” (“How AT&T Miscalculated”, WSJ, 12.21.2011)

Yet there is evidence that refocusing the dialog may be a better way to win the hearts of Millennials. Most people accept that wealth is inequally distributed and say that even in an ideal world, the top 20% should in fact control about a third of the wealth.  Millennials especially have been raised to believe that hard work and talent are what matters to success. What they struggle with is inequal distribution of opportunity.  In other words, it’s okay if someone has more than I do, as long as I have a shot at being part of the 20% myself.

Shifting the conversation to distribution of opportunity rather than wealth would resonate with Millennials, who contrary to myth, are not looking for a handout. Democratic pollster, Douglas Schoen, reported in October that the more radical ideas of those Occupying Wall Street are in fact out of step with the mainstream of Millennial thinking, which is more focused on a level playing field than redistributing wealth: “People are frustrated by an economy that does not reward hard work and responsibility.” (“Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” WSJ, 10.18.11)

Paul Conway, leader of the non-profit organization, Generation Opportunity, agrees with this assessment. He says the Occupy Wall Street protesters are out of step with most young voters:

“Despite this loud minority, though, most young voters believe lowering business taxes creates jobs, and that businesses are able to grow with less government interference…President Obama’s 2008 electoral victory was attributed in part to his support from first-time voters. But his public expressions of sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and his disdain for public spending cuts, could alienate a large number of young voters this time around.” 

Listening to young voters and getting the real message of Occupy Wall Street right could make the difference between winning and losing in 2012.

Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, concurs that the Occupy Wall Street group does not represent mainline Millennials who continue to be more interested in changing business from the inside out than via protest.

“The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely fueled by a relatively small set of young people who view the protests as a fight for their future. The vast majority, however, are getting up and going to work every day — or wishing they could. These individuals are part of a less dramatic but, perhaps, equally powerful movement of Millennials shaping the future of business.”  (“Millennials to Business: Social Responsibility Isn’t Optional, Wash Post, 12.20.11)


Creating a Meaningful Presidential Brand

We should be thankful to the Occupy Wall Street movement for making us recognize Millennials as a political force, even if they do not represent the majority of Millennials. If I were advising the President or one of the Republican Presidential campaigns, I would tell them to get busy. They need to engage with motivated young adults, who’s only request is that they get a fair shake and know a fair shake won’t come from Wall Street but from the politicians that set the rules — for how jobs are created and wealth is made, not how wealth is redistributed.  With Millennials becoming the most influential generation to vote in 2012 and beyond, I am hoping that this dialog starts soon.