The Millennial Voting Bloc: Waiting to be Wooed?

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The group of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 could rival Yahweh for most names. Various cross sections are called the iGeneration, Generation Y, the (Inter)Net Generation, Echo Boomers, Generation Next — or, as at the Pew Research Center’s youth culture panels on Wednesday, the Millennials.

Social gurus had convened to discuss the center’s statistical sketch of the “new face of America,” and many potential consumers of that spring-chicken data, from marketers to charitable recruiters, were noted. Then the entire last panel was dedicated to just two stake-holding parties: the Democrats and Republicans. Politically, Pew researchers emphasized the Millennials’ landslide allegiance to the Dems roundabout 2008 — in that year, 62% said they “leaned” left while only 30% leaned toward the GOP — and their subsequent fickleness about whether they really wanted to lean that way after all, suggesting that they are a voting bloc up for grabs.

The panel’s moderator, PBS’s Judy Woodruff, at times made Millennials sound like the town sweetheart, a prize waiting to be wooed by the political party that had the right moves. And that prize appears substantial: After spending oodles of time and money courting America’s youth, Obama got 66% of their vote in the 2008 election, while McCain took 32%.

That disparity might seem to be more a reflection of shared liberal values than Obama’s campaigning (as if the sweetheart had her mind set on a suitor before the pursuing started). The Pew Research Center found that Millennials are more pro-government, more accepting of homosexuality and interracial dating, more supportive of immigrants, and more reluctant to use military force than other generations. But all the panelists, conservative and liberal alike, insisted that social issues wouldn’t win or lose Millennial loyalty.

That belief seems supported by the Democrats’ loss of their affection during 2009.  By the end of last year, only 54% of Millennials said they leaned Democratic, opposed to 40% leaning Republican. New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai, one of the youth-savvy panelists, says the defining characteristic of that generation is the breakdown of loyalty between them and any institution — whether that means losing faith in Democrats because of belabored governing or no longer believing in baseball because of steroid scandals. He views them, politically and otherwise, as “comparative shoppers.”

Eli Pariser, executive director of the progressive organization, says the flexible, malleable Millennials are just looking for meaning, that they mostly need a political narrative they can feel some part in shaping (though it’s hard for either party to provide that kind of romantic, clear-cut storyline the way a glaringly historical presidential race did). Conservative writer Reihan Salam suggested that “wrenching economic change” might be the deciding factor in how Millennial allegiances play out, despite the Pew Center’s findings that young people remain optimistic about their future earning potential.

The center’s primary survey, conducted in January 2010, found that nine-in-ten Millennials thought they currently have or will have enough money to meet their long-term financial goals. But that finding, the political stats and other generational generalizations, one summit attendee warned, are perhaps best consumed with a saltshaker handy.

Michael Delli Carpini, a political scholar and dean at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that with any question on the Pew Center’s survey, 30 to 40% of respondents will have likely answered in a way inconsistent with how Millennials are “supposed” to look. Working class Millennials probably have a lot more in common with working class people than the typical Millennial, he explained.

In summing up the day’s discussion, the president of the Pew Research Center, Andy Kohut, said that there seemed to be consensus that Millennials were confident, open to change, diverse and set in family values. “The labels are more positive,” Carpini says, “but there’s a big chunk of the age group that doesn’t fall into it. … It’s easy to forget the [data’s] limits.”