Millennial Madness: What Happens If Young Voters Bolt Both Parties?

New study shows choosiest voters itching to disrupt two-party system.

Students and other attendees listen as US President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 27, 2012 expanding on his State of the Union proposals to keep college affordable and within reach for all Americans. AFP Photo/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images) (National Journal)

When I was the age my kids are now, television networks offered three, barely distinguishable choices. Including Internet video, my kids' options are almost infinite. I walked to a library. My kids download books. I owned a few dozen cassette tapes. Their iPods stream thousands of songs.

A quarter-century ago, editors decided what news I read. My kids are their own editors and publishers. My kids are Millennials, raised in an era of rapid change and boundless amounts of information, choice and customization. Born roughly between 1981 and 2000, the Millennial Generation's life experiences will shape where they live, how they work, what products they buy, how they worship and, of course, how they vote.

My generation had just two options politically "“ Democrats or Republicans, and that made sense to us. To my kids' generation, binary choices are absurd, especially when the choices are bad, which is why the two major parties are in danger of losing the future.

In a must-read study, political scientist Michelle Diggles of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, created a sociological profile of the Millennial Generation and projected how those attitudes might affect U.S. politics when young voters age and dominate.

Millennials have come of age in a period of increasing availability of information and expansive customization of goods and services. Their experiences have led them to an `a la carte worldview, including in politics. They may be voting for Democrats in wider margins than Republicans, but there's no indication that they have bought the "prix fixe" menu of policy options historically offered by the Democratic Party, nor that brand loyalty to the Party will cement them as Democrats forever. Yet while Republican claims that these voters are winnable in future elections are plausible, they, too, have been asking younger voters to agree to a multi-course tasting menu with limited options. Millennials are pragmatic "“ they want to know what works and are willing to take ideas from each side. They eschew ideological purity tests of the past. In short, they are winnable by both parties, if only policymakers understood and reflected their values.

What Diggles has done is virtually unheard of in politics today: She set aside her ideological preferences and preconceived notions to ruthlessly assess attitudinal data in a political vacuum. Unlike many in Washington who seem to believe that social changes start with politics, Diggles knows the reverse is true: A fast-changing populace, driven by a hard-to-peg rising generation, will change politics in ways we can't fully fathom.

For instance, a rule of thumb in Washington is that when a voter sides with a party in her first couple of elections, she's likely to stick with that party for years. Historically, that axiom is measurably true. But, wait, says Diggles:

Much to the chagrin of many in marketing, Millennials are much more willing than previous generations to switch even from their most favored brands if they can bet a better deal or more of the features they want. Millennials don't feel limited by brand loyalty "“ true in the marketplace of goods and services as well as politics.

"The ability to customize their soda, or shoes, or even their entertainment experience means that Millennials want to have real input into the design process. They expect brands to genuinely engage with consumers and won't be satisfied with simply being ignored or having someone sell them a pre-made product. Living in an 'a la carte world with unlimited options, Millennials don't feel they have to choose between two limited choices. If they don't like a product, think the price is too high, or don't agree with the company's role in society, they are likely to switch brands. Conversely, Millennials may reward good companies with a 'buycott' "¦

In politics, Millennials rewarded President Obama in 2008 because they liked what he was selling. But he quickly damaged his post-partisan brand, and young voters drifted away in 2012. Going forward, Diggles says her beloved Democratic Party can't take Millennials for granted. This is a choosy bunch, a generation of disruption.

After establishing a sociological profile, Diggles pulls together a variety of polling (including surveys I wrote about here and here) to show how young voter attitudes are already defying conventional politics.

  • Since Obama's election, the number of self-identified independents among the Millennial Generation has increased by 11 points, nearly twice the pace of all other generations. "They aren't satisfied with either side," she says.
  • More than other generations, they believe government can play a positive role in people's lives. That could be good news for Democrats, but think of the events that have shaken Millennials' faith in government: Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, and the Affordable Care Act rollout. More than half of young voters think something run by the government is usually inefficient, up 9 points since 2009. The percentage of Millennials who "trust the government to do what's right" all or most of the time fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2013.
  • They're skeptical of big institutions, including corporations and churches. In a warning to Democrats, Diggles writes, "Millennial voters are unlikely to align with a political party that expects blind faith in large institutions "“ either governmental or nongovernmental."
  • They are socially tolerant, which raises severe problems for the GOP.

However, both parties should caution against stereotyping Millennials as liberals or libertarians on social issues by extrapolating their support for a broad gay equality agenda or marijuana legalization. Republicans may be able to revitalize their connection to Millennials voters by softening their language around immigration, gay and lesbian people, and single mothers, without compromising their positions on core issues to the party, such as abortion. If the GOP can meld some more libertarian views with religious ones and advocate for smaller, more effective government rather than no government, they may have a chance to close the margin with Millennials. Short of these steps, though, it is hard to see how Republicans will gain significant ground with this modern generation in the near term.

Looking at the future of U.S. politics through the prism of Millennials' attitudes today, you'd much prefer the Democratic Party's problems over the GOP's. But the safest best is against both parties "“ at least as they're currently aligned against modernity. Millennials, Diggles concludes, "have the potential to shake up American politics as we know it "“ and both parties must reassess their message to appeal to them."

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