The Millennial Trend: Minority Democrats Versus White Libertarians for Decades

For the Republican party, it's hard to see Pew's new survey of American millennials as very good news. 

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For the Republican Party, it's hard to see Pew's new survey of American millennials as very good news. Millennials — Americans aged 18 to 33, in Pew's estimation — are racially diverse and generally embrace liberal policies. They're also individualists who are disinclined to categorize themselves in groups, including political parties. Reince Priebus tugs at his collar.

Let's paint Pew's findings from its exhaustive survey of this age group in very broad strokes.

  • They are diverse, 43 percent non-white.
  • They identify as politically independent, 50 percent doing so.
  • They are skeptical of others, with only 19 percent saying most people can be trusted.
  • They are optimistic about the future, with 49 percent saying America's best days are ahead.
  • That, despite starting off economically weaker than previous generations. They have record levels of student debt (in part because they're the best-educated generation in history) and are more likely to live in poverty than previous generations at this stage in their lives.
  • They're less likely to identify with major groups. Fewer than half label themselves as patriots, religious, or environmentalists.
  • They're less conservative and more liberal than other generations.

We run the distinct risk of oversimplifying as we start parsing this data, of course, itself already an distillation of a large group of people. But it's hard not to see a portrait emerging. For example: It seems that millennials are individualists who have confidence in their own futures and an aversion to relying on other people for their own success. They're so-called "digital natives," of course, but it's still interesting to pull out this line from Pew's summary of its findings: "Fully 55% have posted a 'selfie' on a social media site; no other generation is nearly as inclined to do this." I'm just outside the bounds of Pew's millennial label (and a digital native, I like to think) but if you're trying to figure out if a person is focused more on himself, selfies seem like a decent metric.

And if that portrait holds, it's not terrible news for conservatives. It fits with the growth of political libertarians, which was documented by the Public Religion Research Institute last year. But that group is also one of the groups that's currently in tension with the Republican Party, embracing Ron Paul over Mitt Romney. Its demographics are what you might expect, with PRRI identifying them as "significantly more likely to be non-Hispanic white, male, and young."

That's where the problem really arises for Republicans. Take this paragraph from Pew:

White and non-white Millennials have different views on the role of government as well. On balance, white Millennials say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52%), rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39%). Non-white Millennials lean heavily toward a bigger government: 71% say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 21% say they would prefer a smaller government. The racial gaps are about as wide among Gen Xers and Boomers.

The racial split is a longstanding, well-known, and increasingly obvious problem for the Republican Party. The party has tried repeatedly to build in-roads with black and Latino voters, without much success. It's a problem that was highlighted in the 2012 presidential race, as those groups heavily opposed Mitt Romney's candidacy. And it's why party leaders have repeatedly tried to institute immigration reform — and been consistently blocked by the older, whiter members of their base. Notice the "Silent" generation data in the graph at right; there aren't enough non-white people to be statistically significant. That's the party's base.

Despite being largely unwilling to classify themselves as Democrats or Republicans, millennials are more likely to agree with the Democrats on policies. Pew walks through a number of social issues, finding younger people more likely to support same-sex marriage, legal marijuana, and immigration reform. (On abortion and gun control, they're largely in line with other generations.) But in terms of self-identification of political preferences (independence notwithstanding), millennials stand out.

Younger people are much more likely to see themselves as sympathetic to Democratic positions than are other generations. Think of the difference this way: like someone who loves vanilla ice cream over chocolate but is indifferent to brand, versus someone who will only buy Baskin-Robbins. But that also has a racial component. Pew:

The remainder divide between the Republican (24%) and Democratic (19%) parties. Among non-white Millennials, about as many (47%) say they are independent. But nearly twice as many (37%) identify as Democrats while just 9% identify as Republicans.

Let's go back to those young white people (men) who are the best news for the Republicans here. One problem is that they're decreasing as a percentage of the population, of course. But even beyond that it isn't good news: they're probably not loyal to the Republican brand either, any more than Ron Paul fans in 2008 and 2012 would be likely to embrace a Rick Perry presidential campaign.

Last September, I wrote about how the Republican Party would remain a force in American politics simply because it would evolve to incorporate the concerns of new, more diverse generations. It will. This Pew survey should be another nudge.

But it might not be. A panel on the Republican Party's race issues at this week's conservative CPAC conference in Maryland was sparsely attended. One rumor uncovered by The Atlantic's Molly Ball is that attendance overall was down because organizers raised prices — to keep out young, rabble-rousing libertarians.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.