The Real Story Behind Headlines on Millennials and Obama

In the end, the Democrats’ biggest Millennial concern is not likely to be the generation’s partisanship or opinions on issues, but its political engagement. 

The headline of a December 15 press release from the Harvard Institute of Politics trumpeted, “More Millennials Predict Obama Will Lose Bid for Re-election Than Win, Harvard Poll Finds.” The article elaborated that among all the 18-29-year-olds, opinion on this question is actually quite evenly divided into almost equal thirds: 36% believe that the president will lose in 2012; 30% think he will win; and 32% are not sure. Not surprisingly, conservative media and politicians jumped on the story with particular vigor and glee.

The headline was certainly provocative, but it hardly told the complete story about the Harvard poll’s results, to say nothing of Millennial political attitudes and preferences, entering 2012. The problem is that asking Millennials which candidate they expect to win an election may measure their awareness of the conventional wisdom that says President Obama is in deep trouble and that next year’s election is the Republicans to lose, but it says very little about how Millennials are actually going to vote in 2012. When Harvard asked that question directly, things look different. Obama leads among Millennials by double digits against all likely Republican opponents: 11 points versus Mitt Romney and 16 points versus both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

The current state of Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) political opinions and behavior is, in fact, reflected far more completely and precisely by a November Pew Research survey:

“In the last four national elections generational differences have mattered more than they have in decades. According to exit polls, younger people have voted substantially more Democratic than other age groups since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006. The latest national polls suggest this pattern may well continue in 2012… One of the largest factors driving the current generation gap is the arrival of diverse and Democratic-oriented Millennials… This group holds liberal attitudes on most social and governmental issues.”

In the Pew research, Millennials prefer Barack Obama over Mitt Romney (61% vs. 37%) by about the same 2:1 margin that they voted for him against John McCain in 2008 (66% vs. 32%). Even white Millennials, a cohort that has received considerable attention from commentators in recent months for their modest drift toward the GOP, are evenly divided in the 2012 voting preferences (49% each for Obama and Romney). The president’s margin among Millennials is even greater against other potential Republican nominees than it is against Romney.

Moreover, Millennials tended toward the Democrats before Barack Obama achieved national prominence. Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by 50% to 35%. Majorities of Millennials also hold favorable attitudes toward the Democratic Party (51%) and unfavorable attitudes toward the GOP (53%). In the policy arena, by 56% to 35%, Millennials prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government that provides fewer services. This broad belief in governmental approaches in dealing with economic and societal issues is reflected in the almost 2:1 preference of Millennials for the expansion rather than the repeal of the 2010 health care reform legislation (44% to 27%) and for increased spending to help economic recovery rather than reducing the budget deficit (55% to 41%).

Millennials also hold opinions on a range of social issues that incline the generation toward the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. A majority of Millennials (59%) support the legalization of gay marriage, while only 28% of them agree that America has gone too far in pushing for equal rights. Probably because it is the most diverse in U.S. history (about 40% are nonwhite and one in five have an immigrant parent) virtually all Millennials (81%) favor providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Of course, the Millennial Generation’s continued clear support for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party is not a sure thing. Both the president and his party must convince Millennials that they can effectively use the government to fix the problems confronting their generation and the nation. But electoral politics is a two-way street. To win Millennial support, the Republican Party has to persuade Millennials that it and its potential presidential nominees are a viable alternative. So far, there is little in the Pew research (or any other poll) to suggest that they have done much to accomplish that undertaking. If anything, the GOP’s push to the right on both economic and social issues makes that increasingly unlikely.

In the end, the Democrats’ biggest Millennial concern is not likely to be the generation’s partisanship or opinions on issues, but its political engagement. The Pew survey indicates that only 69% of Millennials claim to care a good deal about who wins the presidency in 2012. This compares with over 80% among older generations. At the same time, a recent Gallup Poll indicates that the contentious struggle for the Republican presidential nomination and the performance of the party’s leadership in Congress may have taken a toll on the Republican Party and sharply narrowed the “enthusiasm gap” between the Democrats and GOP.

As a result, the participation of Millennials is perhaps even more crucial in 2012 than it was four years earlier. In 2008, the generation comprised about 17% of the electorate and accounted for about 80% of Barack Obama’s national popular vote majority. In 2012, as increasing numbers of Millennials reach voting age, they have the potential to comprise about a quarter of the electorate. If Millennials vote in numbers proportionate to their potential, their continued support of the president, as indicated by Pew, will likely allow him to overcome any losses he suffers among older voters. If large numbers of Millennials do not vote or are prevented from doing so by efforts in states across the country to limit their turnout, the president’s reelection chances will be sharply reduced.

The answers to those questions, not any current judgments on which candidate is likely to win, will very likely determine whether Barack Obama or his eventual Republican opponent is inaugurated as president on January 20, 2013.