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opinion | John Della Volpe

The youth electorate is shifting

Eight years later, as the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, the members of the youth electorate that elected Barack Obama president is decidedly different.Reuters/file 2015

There is little doubt that in 2008 members of the millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000), America’s largest, were among the core groups responsible for electing Barack Obama our 44th president. From the moment that voting began in the Iowa caucuses, the Obama campaign dominated the youth vote. That trend continued through the general election – turning then-reliable Republican states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana from red to blue.

When our 12th Harvard University Institute of Politics poll of young Americans was released in the spring of 2007, the future was already looking grim for Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. Barack Obama was already leading Clinton by 17 points on college campuses and not looking back. Nearly two in five college students said they were politically engaged. There were more than twice as many self-identified liberals as conservatives among the student population.


A majority of students told us they were prepared to volunteer on a political campaign if asked – and the dominant issues of the day were war and peace. A remarkable 52 percent of college students reported in our poll’s open-ended question that the issue that concerned them most was the global war on terror.

How times have changed. Eight years later, as the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, the members of the youth electorate that elected Barack Obama president is decidedly different.

On college campuses, self-identified liberals outnumber conservatives by only 7 points today (40 percent liberal to 33 percent conservative compared to 33 percent to 16 percent in 2007). Half as many college students consider themselves to be politically engaged as they did in 2007, and only one in five of the 53 million 18- to 29-year-olds in America today identify as politically active. Issues related to war, terrorism, and national security are a fraction of what they were in 2007 – and the number of young people who think the economy is the number one priority grew from 5 percent in the pre-recession days of 2007 to 35 percent today.


With the release of our 27th poll, it is clear that the national and global events of the last eight years have influenced how millennials view government and politics in ways no one in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008 would have imagined. All of the candidates seeking to inspire the youngest generation of Americans face an enormous challenge with young voters. To rebuild trust in government and faith in their own campaigns, here are five things everyone should know about the youth vote today:

1. It starts with trust. Fewer than half of 18- to 29-year-olds in America trust the president, Congress, the federal government, Wall Street, or the media to do the “right thing” all or most of the time. While this year’s poll showed some increases relative to last year’s historic lows, significant efforts must be made by candidates for president in order to make politics relevant and essential to an increasingly cynical young electorate. Our future depends on it.

2. For our youngest voters, the idea of American justice is an open question. In the aftermath of incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, among others, our poll revealed that 49 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds do not have confidence in the US judicial system’s ability to fairly judge people without bias for race and ethnicity. When the results are analyzed by race, we find that 66 percent of black Americans have little or no confidence, compared to 43 percent of young White Americans; a majority, or 53 percent, of Hispanics feel the same way.


3. Youth are seeking a more forceful US presence abroad. In a stark reversal of the opinions of millennials a decade ago, 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in America support the use of ground troops in the Middle East to combat ISIS. In addition, we noted a 7-point increase in support for the Bush Doctrine since last spring. (Our poll defined the Bush Doctrine as a willingness to attack potentially hostile nations, rather than waiting until we are attacked to respond). There has been a 10-point increase in the number of young Americans who believe the US should take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts, rather than working collaboratively with the UN and other nations.

4. Attitudes of youth about the role of politics and government defy traditional labels. When we study opinions related to a broad set of ideological issues, we find millennials are far more nuanced than the stereotype of the knee-jerk, left-leaning advocate. While there’s plenty of support for same-sex marriage, health care, and legalization of marijuana, we also find that cutting taxes to increase economic growth is favored by a two-to-one margin, and school choice has been popular among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents for a decade. Additionally, a majority tells us they are concerned with the “moral direction” of the country. While young Democrats and Republicans view moral issues through a different political lens, the millennial moral compass extends beyond traditional social issues like abortion and contraception to include views of government’s role in helping the needy, to human rights, and America’s role in the world. Candidates who tap into these deep-seated beliefs and connect with millennials on these grounds will develop relationships that stand a better chance of withstanding negative attacks as caucus and primary days approach.


5. Millennials are defining their own brand of optimism and believe in the promise of America. While 73 percent of college students expect they will have a difficult time finding a job after graduation, millennials are becoming more optimistic about the country and their future on a daily basis. By more than a three-to-one margin they believe they will be better off than their parents, an improvement over last year – and 65 percent classify their personal financial situation as very or fairly good at the moment. Unlike previous generations, millennials often define happiness through both tangible and intangible gifts that extend beyond bank accounts and property to things like professional and personal flexibility and opportunities to give back.

Democrats still enjoy a broad advantage over Republicans; our poll shows that 55 percent of potential voters under the age of 30 prefer that the Democrats maintain control of the White House after the 2016 election, while 40 percent prefer Republican control. Despite these numbers, Democrats should not count on millennials to mirror the historical effort that propelled Obama to victory in 2008. For the current crop of millennials who were raised in the aftermath of gridlock and recession, winning votes will require the right mix of strength, trust, inspiration, and vision. Meet the new millennials.


John Della Volpe is director of polling, Harvard University Institute of Politics and founder and CEO, SocialSphere, Inc.


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