October 15, 2010
Millennials: Democrats for How Long?By Andrew Rugg
Yesterday, President Obama hosted a youth town hall meeting that was recorded for the MTV, CMT, and BET television networks. Voting-age members of the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1995, were the target audience of the event. Millennials came out big for Obama and the Democrats in 2008. Exit polls show that 18- to 29-year-olds supported Obama over McCain by a margin of 66% to 32%. Will they support Democrats by the same margin in 2010? If so, will their allegiance hold beyond 2010?
Democrats presently enjoy a sizable advantage among millennials. According to the latest Gallup polling, they have a staggering 19-point advantage among millennials on the congressional vote question. While the president's approval rating among the millennials has cooled, they still by and large approve of his job performance. Gallup shows that 53% of millennials approve of his performance, down from 75% in January 2009.
Major pollsters have also revealed that millennials display liberal attitudes in many categories. They scored extremely high on an index devised by Pew in its February 2010 political values survey. The index is an amalgamation of three questions that target attitudes toward the government's effectiveness, government regulation of business, and whether the government has too much control over people's lives. Not only did millennials score higher than previous generations, but they also scored higher than previous generations when the latter were the age of today's millennials. The millennials' politically liberal attitudes cannot, therefore, be attributed solely to their young age. Millennials are also socially liberal. They are very accepting of homosexuality, interracial dating, expanding social roles for women, and immigration. Again, this sets them apart from previous generations.
There are some important caveats to the current allegiance of millennials to the Democratic party. The first is that millennials are politically apathetic. In a 2010 Harvard Institute of Politics poll, over 75 percent described themselves as not engaged or active in politics. It's taken as a given that young people don't turn out to vote in substantial numbers, especially in midterm elections. But the millennial generation exhibits a degree of disinterest in politics that is abnormal in its pervasiveness. As AEI's Michael Barone noted in November 2009, the young voter turnout in the off-year gubernatorial elections dropped significantly compared to 2008, even given the fact that they were off-year elections.
Polls also reveal substantial economic anxiety among millennials. According to Harvard, they have deep concerns about their job security, having money for "extras," and affording a place to live. Perhaps most alarmingly, in the same Harvard poll, a plurality did not expect to achieve the American dream in their lifetime. The Republican Party, which has historically polled better on economic issues, might be able to appeal to millennials along economic lines.
Lastly, the Pew Research Center analyzed the partisan preferences of the millennial generation in comparison to the partisan preferences of previous generations when they were the age of today's millennials. With the exception of Generation X (which was and is less Democratic than the age group that preceded or followed it), Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation were actually more Democratic than the millennials. Below is Pew's chart that highlights the difference.
Party Identification over Time
Percent of those in each generation who say they are Democrats
1956 1974 1994 2008
Millennial (1981+) - - - 41
Genx (1965-80) - - 30 36
Boomer (1946-64) - 47 30 37
Silent (1928-1945) 45 46 36 38
Greatest (1910-1927) 47 51 39 -
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of Roper, Gallup, and Pew data. Based on registered voters.
Granted, the Democratic Party is not the same party it was for those born in 1925 (the beginning of the Silent Generation). However, fears that the Republican Party has neglected to appeal to an entire generation of Americans simply ignore the historical correlation between being young and being a Democrat.