Why Millennials Fell Out of Love With Obama

The economy, the Edward Snowden revelations, and the Affordable Care Act have all stressed the president's relationship with young Americans.
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Students cheer as President Obama speaks at a campaign event at Iowa State University in August 2012. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

There's no heartbreak like the heartbreak of first love, and when it comes to politics, no disappointment more bitter than that of a young person who grows up to realize her one-time idol is all too human.

That's the explanation offered by Harvard Institute of Politics pollster John Della Volpe and IOP Director Trey Grayson for the precipitous drop in Millennial generation support for President Obama in this year's annual Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service.

"We are now seeing a sea change among this critical demographic," Grayson said. "The president has experienced a double-digit drop among Millennials over the past seven months and that rating is now the lowest we've seen during his presidency."

The poll, conducted between October 30 and November 11, found that the president's approval among 18- to 29-year-olds had dropped from 52 to 41 percent over the course of the year, and that younger Millennials—those between 18 and 24—were trending less Democratic.

"For the better part of four or five years, young people have been the outliers. They've been the folks who have been the most optimistic and most trusting of the president and Congress to actually solve the problems they most care about," Della Volpe said, explaining what happened.

"You have a combination of two things. One is: Expectations [were] incredibly high—not just for the president but for Washington and adults in general—that have been unmet," he said. "And then the second part of it is, you can see that there are very few aspects of the healthcare initiative that they approve of. They think quality will decrease, prices will increase. So it's not surprising that that is taking a significant hit to the president's approval ratings."

Asked whether the president, who is holding a Youth Summit at the White House today, has been ineffective in communicating with Millennials about Obamacare, Della Volpe said: "I believe that's absolutely the case."

Given media reports about how young healthy people are expected to subsidize sick older people in the new health-insurance exchanges, feeling put-upon is "probably a rational conclusion that they're drawing" about the new mandate, Grayson added.

And it's not just the Affordable Care Act. "There's a couple of things at work," Grayson elaborated. "We've had a tough economy for many years. It's better, it's better than it was four or five years ago. But for 18- to 29-year-olds, many of them are graduating with serious college debt ... often unemployed or underemployed. That takes its toll."

Add to that the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov and "the Snowden stuff"—polling data that "shows that these 18-29 year olds are not that supportive of giving up personal information for national-security interests"—and you have a real recipe for disillusionment.

"People are disappointed because they are passionate," Della Volpe said. "They're passionate about government. Passionate about America .... Sometimes the people who are most disappointed by anything, it's because they are passionate and their expectations are so high. So I think those kinds of expectations are just different for younger people for lots of reasons, including the fact that this is  their first opportunity to support somebody for president."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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