Why the Millennials Aren't a Slam Dunk for the Democratic Party

Even though they're more liberal, standard party rhetoric about Social Security and Medicare just doesn't motivate them.

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The president was received warmly when he gave the 2012 commencement address at Barnard College. (Reuters)

The American electorate has undergone fundamental demographic changes over the past 20 years that will continue for the foreseeable future. These changes -- in particular, the growth of the millennial generation -- will result in a significantly different landscape for the two parties in 2024 and have a consequential impact on policy-making and governing.

Some have argued that the growth of groups that are more favorably inclined toward the Democratic Party (nonwhites, millennials, unmarried women, professionals, the nonreligious) will inevitably lead to a long-term Democratic majority. When it comes to millennials, this is true to an extent -- but there are important caveats that make the eventual outcome less certain. Events on the ground matter, and the actions taken by the two parties over the next dozen years will exert a heavy influence over how this group votes in 2024.

In 2008, 48 million millennials (those born between 1978 and 2000) were eligible to vote, and 25 million actually did. By 2020, the first year in which all millennials will be eligible, those numbers will about double, to 90 million and 52 million respectively. Millennials will make up more than 35 percent of the electorate in 2024, up from 20 percent in 2008, and about the same percentage of the electorate currently made up by baby boomers. The 25 million millennials who voted in 2008 went strongly Democratic, giving President Obama 66 percent of their vote and House Democrats nearly as much, at 63 percent.

But this support for Democrats dropped significantly in 2010, to 55 percent. And while other 2008 Obama base groups such as nonwhites and unmarried women have seen their level of support for Obama's re-election return to 2008 levels after a 2010 drop-off, recent polling shows that millennial voters' enthusiasm still lags. Fifty-eight percent of these voters self-identified as Democrats in 2008, but that was down to 50 percent at the end of 2011 -- the largest decline of any age group.

What explains the drop? This group was hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. And while they continue to lean Democratic, their high expectations for Obama combined with a perceived lack of progress on the economy has clearly dented their once overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party -- at least temporarily. But how is that likely to change over the next 12 years?

There is little doubt that millennials are generally much friendlier to Democrats than Republicans. They are more likely to identify as liberals and are much less religious than older generations. They hold far more progressive views on social issues. More than 60 percent support gay marriage, and they are much more supportive of legalizing marijuana, promoting racial justice, and restricting guns, among other issues. Just as important, millennials are dramatically more supportive of a larger and more activist government (56 percent support a bigger government with more services, versus 41 percent of all adults), and they show the most support of any age cohort for President Obama's health-care bill, for environmental regulations, and for alternative energy. They are much more supportive of immigration and immigrants, and much less supportive of American exceptionalism in foreign policy.

Presented by

Andrew Baumann & Anna Greenberg

Andrew Baumann and Anna Greenberg are, respectively, a vice president and senior vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a progressive polling firm in Washington, D.C.

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