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.