They’re Young, They’re Democrats, and They’re Progressives, But Will They Vote in 2010?

In 2008, after giving Barack Obama a decisive edge in his hard-fought victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, members of the Millennial Generation, who are now between 18 and 28 years old,  voted for him by an overwhelming 2:1 margin over John McCain (66% vs. 32%). Because they voted so uniformly for Obama, while older generations were almost evenly divided in their presidential voting preferences, Millennials accounted for about 80 percent of the president’s popular vote edge in the November general election. In addition, in both 2006 and 2008, Millennials voted for Democratic congressional candidates by about the same 2:1 margin that they gave the president in his general election victory.

More recently, however, some observers say that Millennial enthusiasm for President Obama, the Democratic Party, and progressive policies has begun to wane and wobble. Unfortunately, most of these observations are based more on personal speculation than on empirical evidence.  An early September New York Times article, primarily on the basis of personal interviews with about a half dozen students at one Colorado university, concluded that “The college vote is up for grabs this year—to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama.”  A few days later, conservative columnist, Jonah Goldberg, relying on even less empirical data than the New York Times, crowed that, after the 2008 election, “youngsters seemed like a pot of electoral gold” to liberal columnists such as Harold Meyerson and E.J. Dionne,  but now, according to Goldberg, “Obama’s coalition is frayed and frazzled. Independents defected long ago, and young people are heading for the door.”  As even a cursory glance at recent polling demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

Recent surveys of Millennials conducted in the battleground states of Colorado and Florida for the New Policy Institute (NPI) by market research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, tell a far different story about the political loyalties and attitudes of young voters.  As the following table indicates, in both states, a majority of Millennials continue to identify as Democrats. The greatest number also calls themselves liberal or progressive, making theirs the first generation since the GI or Greatest Generation to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. In addition, most Millennials hold favorable attitudes toward Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (and unfavorable attitudes toward the Republican Party and Tea Party movement).

These results are corroborated nationally in an early September Pew Research Center survey. That poll gives the Democrats a greater than 2:1 (51% vs. 22%) party ID advantage over the GOP among Millennials. By contrast, the two parties are almost virtually tied in party ID among all older generations (43% Democrat vs. 40% Republican).

Just as important, Millennials hold solidly progressive positions on a range of key issues:

·       A solid plurality of them (45%) favors the healthcare reform law passed by Congress and signed by the president in February. An additional 14 percent want to see how the new law works in practice before attempting to change or repeal it. Only 18 percent of Millennials favor repealing it outright. By contrast, older generations are almost evenly divided on this issue (43% supporting the healthcare reform legislation and 35% favoring immediate repeal of the new law).

·        Two-thirds of Millennials (67%) oppose modifying the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. In contrast, a majority of those in older generations (51%) favor changing the Constitution for this purpose.

·       A plurality of Millennials (34%) would prefer to let all of the Bush 2001 tax cuts to expire. An additional 26% favor letting the tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250 thousand per year, but remain in place for other Americans. Less than one-quarter (23%) believe that all of the tax cuts should be extended. On the other hand, among older Americans, only one-quarter (26%) favor ending of all the tax cuts, while a plurality (30%) want all of them to remain in force. (All of this bodes well for the long-term future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Voting behavior research dating back to the 1950s demonstrates that once political identifications and attitudes are formed in early adulthood, they tend to solidify and remain constant for a lifetime. The GI or Greatest Generation was the last American generation that so solidly identified as Democrats and so strikingly supported liberal or progressive policies. That generation underpinned Democratic Party dominance of U.S. politics from the 1930s through the 1960s. The Millennial Generation, along with other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition,  has the potential to underpin another era of Democratic and progressive dominance, particularly as the Millennial share of the electorate increases from the 17 percent that it was in 2008, to the 24 percent that it will be when President Obama runs for reelection in 2012, and the 36 percent in will comprise in 2020 when the youngest Millennials become eligible to vote.

All of this suggests that, as in 2008, the Millennial Generation is positioned to be a decisive force this November. If Millennials vote as overwhelmingly Democratic this year as they appear likely to do, they could prove to be the crucial factor in an election that appears to be evenly divided according to the most recent polling. 

For that to happen, however, Millennials will have to vote in 2010 at a level proportionate to their contribution to the electorate in 2006 and 2008. Recent polling suggests that is by no means certain. Part of the problem is structural: a June NDN survey indicated that only 60 percent of Millennials, as compared with 83 percent of older generations, were registered to vote.

 However, a bigger concern is attitudinal: Millennials, like other components of the Democratic coalition, are not as inspired by or involved in politics as they were in both 2006 and 2008. The June NDN poll indicated that only 44 percent of Millennials in contrast to 64 percent of other generations said they were “absolutely certain” to vote this fall. The numbers were a bit better three months later in both Florida (48%) and Colorado (56%), but they were undoubtedly   well below that of older voters in those states. Of greater concern, however, the June NDN survey indicates that only a third of Millennials (33%), as compared to about half of other Americans (47%), placed great importance on the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections. In both Colorado (31%) and Florida (32%), as in the nation overall, only a third of Millennials perceived the election to be very important.

Fortunately, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party clearly recognize the crucial importance of the Millennial Generation. The president has scheduled a series of rallies at college campuses across the country, most recently at the University of Wisconsin,  to remind Millennials of all that is at stake this fall. The Democratic National Committee has earmarked $50 million to bring Millennials, and other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition, to the polls. The operative question in the 2010 midterm election is whether these efforts will prove to be timely and effective enough to activate the Democratic majority this November.