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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.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators march along 42nd Street to protest various businesses on May 1, 2012, in New York City.(Monika Graff/Getty Images)

photo of Stephanie Czekalinski
May 15, 2014

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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