Democrats turned in an impressive performance among younger voters (18-29) in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. So strong, it led some liberal commentators like Ruy Teixiera and John B. Judis to pronounce a new permanent political marriage between the Democratic left and America’s youth.
Writing in the American Prospect in 2007, Teixiera and Judis proclaimed, “The Democratic majority in 2006 was bolstered by support from voters age 18 to 29… in contrast with the previous generation, they prefer Democrats over Republicans and the center-left over the center right…the millennials can be expected to bolster a new Democratic majority.”
Barack Obama kept the youthful juggernaut moving in the Democratic direction, winning the age group by a 66 percent - 32 percent margin in 2008.
Yet some scholars take a more cautious approach about these short term fluctuations among age groups. For example, political scientists Karen Kaufmann, John Petrocik and Daron Shaw, in their book Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths About American Voters, argue the under-30 crowd is among the weakest in its attachment to political parties and somewhat fickle to boot. They posit younger voters are a highly volatile segment of the electorate, “young [American] voters are known for their weak partisan ties, and history has shown us that levels of party affinity can change over time,” Kaufmann and her collaborators write.
So was it a little too early to announce the millennial generation made a life commitment to the Democrats, based on the last two elections? Perhaps.
Kaufmann and her colleagues’ views were supported by a Pew Research study published last week, analyzing the political views of the millennial generation. The report titled, “Democrats’ Edge Among Millennials Slips” shows why this group, with weaker partisan ties to begin with, may be shifting again after observing the first year of the Barack Obama/Democratic majority tag team in Washington.
But the Pew study should not lead Republicans to dash to their local celebratory watering hole either. According to the report, at the end of 2009, Democrats still maintained a strong 14-point (54 percent - 40 percent) advantage in party identification among these voters. Yet that’s considerably smaller than the 62 percent -30 percent edge Democrats held in 2008.
What could cause the Democrats’ advantage to ebb by more than half in about a year?
It’s not just random fluctuation in polling. Rasmussen finds a similar trend on a variety of measures such as the generic ballot, and which party younger voters trust to handle various issues, over the same period. For example, its most recent polling found Republicans now lead by 14 points on the generic ballot among voters 18-29. That compared to a 12 point Democratic lead in February of 2009 – a net shift of 26 points in one year. Democrats also dipped 10 points (from +12 to +2) on which party younger voters trust more on the key issue of the economy.
The drop probably has a lot to do with the gap between rhetoric and reality. The political process in Washington in 2010 looks very much like it missed the lifeline offered by Obama’s campaign rhetoric. The president – and by extension his party – haven’t produced much in the way change promised so often by the candidates lofty claims.
Many young voters bought in to the promises and now are understandably demoralized. Where they go from here is still an open question.
Yet there’s another more subtle dimension to millennials’ political views that deserves mention, and also may help explain the Pew and Rasmussen polling results. As Kaufman and her colleagues point to in the book, while today’s younger voters view themselves more as Democrats than Republicans, they describe themselves in polls as “weak partisans” or even independents who just “lean” Democratic. Research has shown that the stronger a person’s partisanship on self-identification, the less likely he is to change his political attachments over time.
In other words, many millennials are attached to the Democrats for now, but unlike older cohorts, their party links are more tepid. These realities mean the group is more politically volatile than suggested by conventional wisdom and liberal cheerleaders.
Do these shifts in partisan identification among the millennials mean whole scale defection from the Democrats? Not at all. But their volatility as a group due to their weaker partisan attachments does mean their current cohabitation with the Democrats may not result in permanent nuptials.