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
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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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