Democrats Have a Millennials Problem

While young Americans have policy preferences that line up with Democrats, very few of them are planning on voting in 2014.

A man carries a flag as Occupy Wall Street demonstrators march along 42nd Street to protest various businesses during May Day on May 1, 2012 in New York.
National Journal
Stephanie Czekalinski
May 15, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

As the midterms ap­proach, Demo­crats are un­der­per­form­ing among a vot­ing bloc that sup­por­ted Barack Obama over Mitt Rom­ney al­most 2-to-1 in 2012.

That’s the takeaway from a new on­line poll of mil­len­ni­al adults con­duc­ted by Harstad Stra­tegic Re­search. The sur­vey found that al­though more than sev­en in 10 mil­len­ni­als lean pro­gress­ive on a host of top­ics and policies and sup­port a more in­volved gov­ern­ment, only 28 per­cent said they will “def­in­itely vote” in the 2014 midterm elec­tions.

“That’s a real chal­lenge for Demo­crats, but also a real op­por­tun­ity,” said Paul Harstad, of Harstad Stra­tegic Re­search, dur­ing a con­fer­ence call Thursday re­gard­ing the res­ults.

The poll, which has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points, was con­duc­ted March 30 to April 4. On­line polls do not provide the same stat­ist­ic­al valid­ity as sur­veys con­duc­ted through ran­dom land­line and cell-phone call­ing, but they can of­fer a broad sense of at­ti­tudes, par­tic­u­larly with groups like young adults that are dif­fi­cult to reach through tra­di­tion­al means.

The poll found strong sup­port among mil­len­ni­als for pro­gress­ive policies. More than 80 per­cent of re­spond­ents favored guar­an­tee­ing wo­men equal pay (87 per­cent); lower­ing the in­terest rates on stu­dent-loan debt (87 per­cent); re­quir­ing crim­in­al back­ground checks on gun pur­chases, in­clud­ing those at gun shows (83 per­cent); and in­creas­ing fund­ing for edu­ca­tion (82 per­cent). Equal-pay guar­an­tees and lower in­terest rates on stu­dent loans had strong sup­port even among re­spond­ents who iden­ti­fied them­selves as Re­pub­lic­ans: 83 per­cent and 84 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an re­spond­ents said they favored those stands, re­spect­ively.

A ma­jor­ity of mil­len­ni­als were also likely to say they fa­vor a more in­volved gov­ern­ment. Nearly 60 per­cent said they pre­ferred the gov­ern­ment be “on their side” rather than “off their back,” al­though polit­ic­al ideo­logy in­flu­enced re­spond­ents’ views. More than 70 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als who iden­ti­fied as Demo­crats said they pre­ferred gov­ern­ment on their side, com­pared with only 50 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans. In­de­pend­ents fell in between. Race and gender played a role, too, with non­whites (66 per­cent) and wo­men (65 per­cent) more likely than whites (54 per­cent) and men (54 per­cent) to say they pre­ferred a more in­volved gov­ern­ment.

While those res­ults bode well for Demo­crats, the re­sponses re­gard­ing turnout should give them pause. Less than one-third of mil­len­ni­als said they would def­in­itely vote in the 2014 midterms. Among those ages 18 to 23, only slightly more than two-fifths were sure they’d vote. A third of those ages 24 to 31 said they would. The pic­ture is bet­ter for the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion: 55 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als said they would def­in­itely vote then. Again, older mil­len­ni­als were more likely than their young­er coun­ter­parts to say they’d def­in­itely cast a bal­lot (59 per­cent to 49 per­cent re­spect­ively.)

Mil­len­ni­als are most per­suaded by policies that pro­mote eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey. Nearly 60 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als said they found mes­saging re­gard­ing mak­ing col­lege and stu­dent loans more af­ford­able per­suas­ive; 57 per­cent said that in­vest­ing in good jobs and im­prov­ing K-12 edu­ca­tion was a per­suas­ive po­s­i­tion; 56 per­cent said that in­vest­ing more in com­munity col­leges was. Back­ground checks for gun sales and gun shows also had the sup­port of 56 per­cent of re­spond­ents.

Des­pite the strong sup­port for pro­gress­ive-policy po­s­i­tions, Harstad said it was pos­sible that there would be more in­de­pend­ent voters among mil­len­ni­als com­pared with older co­horts. “But the in­de­pend­ents will prob­ably lean to­ward the Demo­crats,” he said. “Giv­en the over­whelm­ing pop­ular­ity of pro­gress­ive stands on these is­sues, it sort of leads them one way.”

The ques­tion is if and when young people will show up at the polls to ex­press those views.

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