This much is undeniable: In 2008, one recession and two long wars drove Millennial voters to the polls and helped elect Barack Obama. Millennials backed Obama again in 2012, but their future as reliable Democratic voters is far less certain.
Yes, Obama won 60 percent of the 18-29 vote last November, but that was down six percent from his victory in 2008. More worrisome for Democrats was that according to new data from the Census Bureau, youth turnout dropped precipitously between 2008 and 2012, from 51 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds to 45.2 percent.
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“They’ve been telling all of us that Washington is broken and they have less trust in the institutions by the day,” says John Della Volpe, who polls millennials for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, “any many stayed home as a result.” Turnout among 18-21 year olds, who were ineligible to vote in 2008, was 38.1 percent compared to 45 percent in the same age bracket last cycle — and 10 points below the 2012 turnout of the 22-29 year olds who were eligible to vote four years before.
Last week IOP released its biennial survey of millennials, finding that 18-29 year olds trust in every public institution is down from last year, with only the military holding an above-water rating. Cynicism and negativity toward public officials are up five points since 2010 and a near majority, 47 percent, agree with the statement “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing. (36 percent said they neither agree nor disagree.)
“We’ve seen two sides of this generation,” Volpe says. “The side that helped Obama and the side that says they are fed up with politics as usual.”
To an extent there is a divide among millenials — the Obama generation that rejected President George W. Bush and the younger cohort for whom the comparison isn’t to Bush but to Obama the campaigner.
“The older part, who were of age to vote for Obama, they are more progressive, more liberal, more engaged in politics,” Volpe says. “The younger group who came of age in the recession — they are less active, more likely to be politically and fiscally conservative. The people who voted for Obama both times seem like they are sticking with him, it’s the younger portion of the generation who are less loyal to Obama and to Democrats and potentially a place for Republicans to make some inroads.”
But standing in the way of Republicans is the fact that millenials are socially liberal — responsible for driving the nationwide movement to embrace gay marriage — and supportive of immigration reform. But on he spending issue, they tend to be more fiscally conservative.
Their distrust of public institutions has also made them more supportive of innovation and reform in government. “On education reform, they agree with Republicans more than Democrats [when it comes to charter schools and teachers unions],” says political commentator David Gergen, who has become fascinated by the generation’s politics. A plurality in the Harvard survey backed school choice, and education ranked among the top issues important to millennials.
But the issue the generation is most concerned about is the economy — fitting for the group best known for moving back in with their parents and struggling to find employment. The unemployment rate for 18-19 year olds was 22.6 percent in April and for 20-24 year olds, the only other category of millennials measured separately, the jobless rate is 13.1 — compared to 7.5 for all Americans. Just under 20 percent of 18-29 year olds in the Harvard survey said they are looking for work. Only 42 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy — a lower percentage than the nation as a whole.
“Democrats clearly have an advantage with millennials, but they can lose it if they can’t get the economy moving or are beholden to the same old interest groups that younger people are rejecting,” Gergen, a former top aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton says.
Working in Democrats’ favor, he added, is that historically voters whose first electoral experiences went into electing a president twice tend to stick with that candidate — most notably with FDR, Eisenhower, and Reagan voters.
“I increasingly believe that Obama is going to have a hard time getting a lot done in the next three years,” says Gergen. “But one of his legacies may be a Democratic majority that goes on, and that’s a substantial accomplishment.”