All the controversy about President Obama's upcoming appearance at Notre Dame is overshadowing a larger point about the university commencement tour he began Wednesday night in Arizona: Obama is presenting Democrats an opportunity to establish a lasting and potentially crushing advantage with the Millennial Generation, the largest in American history.
Young voters are not as reflexively Democratic or liberal as many people might think. Since 18-year-olds were granted the vote in 1972, younger voters have often tracked fairly close to the national trend in presidential elections: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush carried them in 1984 and 1988, and they split almost evenly between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.
But over the past three elections, voters under 30 have moved steadily toward the Democrats. In the 2004 presidential race, John Kerry carried 54% of them, compared to only 48% of the country overall. In 2006, Democrats won 60% of voters under 30 in the mid-term House elections, according to the national exit poll. Then in 2008, the bottom fell out for Republicans: against John McCain, Obama won a stunning 66% of voters 18-29. Partially Obama ran so well among young people because so many of them are non-white, and he dominated among non-whites at every age. But the exit polls found Obama also won 54% of white voters under 29; even the younger Bush carried 55% of whites under 30 in each of his two elections.
If anything, Obama's position with the Millennial generation appears even stronger today. Apart from African-Americans, these young people have been Obama's most enthusiastic and consistent supporters in office. In the Gallup tracking polling that's been conducted since January, Obama's approval rating among voters younger than 30 has never fallen below 66%. His approval rating among young voters consistently runs somewhere between six and nine points higher than his overall showing: today, Obama receives positive approval ratings from a dizzying 75% of voters under 30, compared to 66% from the country overall.
Another set of numbers Gallup released earlier this month shows how Obama's strength can bolster his party. Gallup cumulated all of its 123,000 interviews this year to examine party identification in the electorate. Among the Millennial generation, it found that just 21% identify as Republicans, compared to 36% as Democrats and 34% as independents. "Republicans, for all practical purposes, aren't even on the radar screen with them," says Michael D. Hais, a fellow at the Democratic advocacy group NDN, and co-author of Millennial Makeover, a recent book on the generation.
The enormous advantage among young people for Obama in particular and Democrats in general matters for two reasons. The more immediate is that this generation, which is generally defined as the 93 million people born between 1983 and 2002, will comprise a rapidly increasing share of voters through the next decade. Hais and his co-author, Morley Winograd, also an NDN fellow, have calculated that in 2008, 41% of Millennials were eligible to vote, and they constituted 17% of the electorate. They project that by 2012, 61% of the Millennials will be eligible, and they'll comprise 24% of the electorate; by 2016, the numbers will reach 80% and 30%. By 2020, virtually all of them will be eligible and they could constitute as much as 36% of all voters. If Obama maintains anything near his current strength among Millennials, they will produce a substantially larger vote surplus for him in 2012 than they did in 2008-leaving Republicans a larger deficit to overcome with older voters.
Obama's strength among young people has a second, even more significant, implication: if Republicans cannot reverse it reasonably soon, it could harden into a lasting preference for Democrats in this huge generation. Political scientists and political strategists generally divide into two camps over how partisan allegiances are formed. The lifecycle camp argues that people's views change at different points in their life, with many voters, for instance, becoming more averse to taxes as they acquire families and mortgages. Surely some of that occurs; few people's political preferences are entirely static or so deeply held they cannot be disrupted, at least temporarily, by events.
But probably the dominant camp believes partisan allegiances are forged mostly by the social, economic and political experiences that shape a generation's upbringing. As Winograd and Hais wrote, "Members of the electorate are most easily persuaded when they are young, before their beliefs harden into attitudes they will retain throughout their lives." Kristen Soltis, director of policy research at the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, has studied young people and politics, and she largely agrees. "I fall into the camp that see it as more generational-that there are period effects that come into play when someone becomes [politically] active, and that colors the way you look at politics throughout your life," she said.
Other numbers from the Gallup polls conducted this year point toward that interpretation. Gallup provided me with their figures breaking out party identification by age on a year-by-year basis. It found unmistakable patterns of allegiance to the two parties that track the most consequential presidencies of recent times.
Democrats did best among voters who turned 18 since George W. Bush took office in 2001 (those now aged 18 through 25). Among those voters, the Democratic Party identification advantage ranged from 14 to 18 percentage points. Democrats also did well, but not quite as well, among those who turned 18 while Bill Clinton was President (those who are now 26 to 33). Among this group, the Democratic Party identification advantage stood at 9 to 12 percentage points. The story was very different in the generation that turned 18 during Ronald Reagan's eight years as president. Those voters (who are now 38 to 45) preferred Democrats over Republicans by only three to nine percentage points. "Those are the Reagan babies," said Winograd.
These striking patterns in attitude underscore the stakes for the two sides through the remainder of Obama's presidency. Soltis says the durability of generational preferences should inspire more urgency among Republicans about the possibility of Obama locking down this cohort for Democrats. She wants the party to emphasize themes of opportunity and to criticize Obama for saddling young people with exploding federal debts. Mostly she wants the party to focus on all the dimensions of its challenge with young people. "We've still got a chance, but it's something that needs to be acted upon quickly," she says.
Winograd and Hais believe Republicans can't do much to detach young voters from Obama if the president is seen as succeeding. In Millennial Makeover, they argue that many of this generation's formative experiences-their diversity, their tolerance of difference, and the patterns of parenting that inclined them to find collective "win-win" solutions-already inclined them toward Democratic beliefs. The perception that Bush failed in the White House reinforced the Millennials' tilt toward Democrats; now Obama, they maintain, has the chance to cement those ties. "They already know that Republicans messed up a la Bush; the question is will Obama turn out to be the successful president they all expect him to be?" Winograd said. The analogy, Winograd and Hais maintain, could be the way Franklin Roosevelt's success built upon Herbert Hoover's failure and created a generation of FDR Democrats that bolstered his party for decades. In the same way, they argue, if Obama succeeds, he "could be the final piece" bonding this generation to Democrats. Of course, if he fails, those bonds could be severely strained, especially since young people have invested so much hope in him.
Either way, it is the lasting loyalty of this mammoth young generation, far more than the dust-up over abortion, that is the real prize at play as Obama begins his first campus tour as president.