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.