Two recent studies — one released by the Pew Research Center and one by Third Way — show that the generation that helped elect President Obama in 2008 now identifies as independent more than ever. Millennials who may have voted with youthful exuberance in 2008 seem to have grown fatigued with the government’s inability to get things done.
In 2009, 42 percent of millennials said government programs are usually inefficient and wasteful, according to Pew data. By 2012, that number had increased to 51 percent. And young people say they’re losing trust in the government to Do the Right Thing. In 2009, 44 percent of millennials said they trust the government to do what’s right all or most of the time. By 2013, that dropped to 29 percent.
Perhaps as a result of this political fatigue, more and more millennials are starting to identify as politically independent. Third Way — a think tank that advocates for centrist public policy — says millennials may lean Democratic, but more are opting to pick and choose their politics:
They may be voting for Democrats by wider margins than Republicans, but there’s no indication that they have bought the prix fixe menu of policy options historically offered by the Democratic Party, nor that brand loyalty to the Party will cement them as Democrats forever.
The study also found that millennials are more open to switching brands than past generations. Third Way found that 85 percent of millennials would be willing to switch brands if it aligned with a cause they support.
You could argue that the Democratic and Republican parties are two of the biggest brands in the U.S. And like any good company, they need to work to show the coveted 18-to-29-year-old population that they’re better than their competition. (Pew defines millennials as people born between 1981 and 1996.)
Then again, millennials are opting out of the Democratic/Republican brand war altogether. According to Pew, each successive generation has grown increasingly weary of strict party politics. Since 2004, the portion of millennials who identify as independents has grown from 38 percent to 50 percent — more than the percentage who identify as Republican and Democratic combined.
But just because more millennials identify as independents doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more moderate than past generations. The Pew study found that, over the past 10 years, millennials “have remained the most liberal and least conservative of the four generations.”
Almost a third of millennials identify as liberal, versus 39 percent who identify as moderate and 26 percent who identify as conservative. The Silent Generation identifies as more Democratic, but millennials are more liberal.
Millennials have long been the carbuncle on the GOP’s backside, but these studies suggest some ways that Republicans can make inroads with younger voters. Twentysomethings today are less ideologically “pure” than older voters, and therefore more likely to be swayed to one side or another.
What larger lessons can we take from these studies? Like Walt Whitman, the millennial generation contains multitudes. Twentysomethings today can’t be simplified to the keffiyeh-wearing, selfie-taking hipster that graces a magazine cover story every three months.
But overarching trends seem to suggest a waning belief that the government can actually get things done, and a growing belief that America most draws its strength from entrepreneurship. To win over swaths of millennials in the next election, Democrats need to show they support that entrepreneurship, and Republicans need to show that they’re open to government solutions where the free market fails.