A new survey by Pew has been hyped to highlight the GOP’s youth problem. Among the poll’s more notable findings are that among 18-34 year olds 50% identify as Democratic or Democratic and only 34% Republican or Republican leaning. Yet when pushed 50% of all 18-34 year olds identify as Independents (who behave more and more like partisans). But what really backs up the claim is that 30% identify as liberal compared to only 26% that are conservative. A solid 39% identify as liberal. According to Pew this is the first generational group to see more identify as liberal than conservative. Pew points out the contrast that today only 18% of the Depression generation identify as liberal compared to 45% conservative. Never-mind these conservative voters gave us Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and other failing Great Society programs.
Unsurprisingly, the Pew results find a solid majority, 68%, back gay marriage, including 66% of young Republicans. What should worry the party more is that 55% of Millennials back citizenship for illegals and 56% state that they support abortion in all or most cases (most cases being a vague term). In terms of what role government should play, 53% favor a government that plays a bigger role in people’s lives (sure, just like NSA monitoring of phone calls) while only 38% favor a small government that provides less services.
According to Chris Cillizza, Republicans might be comforted by the fact that voters tend to get more conservative as they age. After-all, the Depression and Boomer generation certainly did. But the Pew survey finds that 48% of Millennials say they have become more liberal as they have aged (age being relative at a cap of 34). On social issues, 57% say they have become more liberal. While this news must make Democrats rejoice and Republicans groan there are some things to consider from this survey.
First-off, it tends not to gel with other surveys, particularly on abortion. Gallup has conducted a pro-life, pro-choice survey as long as Pew has and in 2013 it found 51% identifying as pro-life and 41% pro-choice. A narrow plurality of 18-34 year olds identified as pro-life compared to pro-choice. So Pew’s results may be accurate and Gallup’s an aberration but one survey does not make a trend. Secondly, social issues is a broad construct to base one’s ideology on. For example, many Millennials may say they have become more liberal on social issues because they support gay marriage (heck, I would) but that is far from being a liberal on social issues.
Third, this survey’s results do not reconcile with what we know of how young people’s political views come of age. Put more simply, first-time and young voters political views are shaped by the issues and economy of the time they enter into the political arena. John Sides has an interesting graph showing this trend at work from Pew. Note how young voters (spanning multiple generations) have tended to be more Democratic in positive or recovering economic times and ditto for Republicans like during Reagan and HW. For Millennials, their views have come of age during a recession under a GOP President, unpopular foreign conflicts and a young, politically savvy minority President (whose sheen admittedly has washed off).
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the youngest batch of Millennials does not seem to share their older siblings Democratic preferences. One wonders if this case will continue when the Facebook/Social media (as it has been referred to as) generation comes of age. In any case, Sides also notes that among self identified 18 year olds, Mitt Romney actually won a majority, 57%. Among 19 year olds Romney won 59% and 20 year olds, 54%. Only among 21 year olds, many who had likely backed Obama in 08 did he start carrying Millennials.
There is also the results of 2013 in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections. While the results were mixed, Democrats won Virginia and the GOP New Jersey, the actions of Millennials show they can be swayed by the economic fundamentals and qualities of the candidates in the race. In New Jersey, Chris Christie carried 18-24 year olds and narrowly lost the 18-29 vote. He easily carried every other age group. In Virginia, while Ken Cuccinelli was crushed among 30-44 year olds and did lose 18-29 year old, a more complex breakdown of the 18-29 results show that Cuccinelli actually managed to win 18-24 year olds. In other words the youngest Millennials.
Republicans should be wary of arguing these results are a panacea for the party’s ills with young voters. Indeed, the party’s own 2012 autopsy found that many young voters view the party as old, white and outdated. That may be why it will be helpful if the party blazes a new trail by focusing on long ignored issues that defy an ideological label such as Rand Paul’s stance on the War on Drugs (legalize pot), the NSA (national security) and social issues (leave it up to the states) that mix libertarian and conservative policies.
One thing seems to be clear however. If the economy continues to be stagnant under Obama and the GOP nominates a young, strong conservative to moderate candidate who can appeal to disenfranchised Obama Millennials and new voters the party will likely win in 2016.
Addendum: Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones shows why Democrats are probably going to lose elections more than they win in the near future.