The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, Voting and Registration Supplement is the definitive measure of voter turnout. Its release in early April has confirmed what many suspected: Turnout among young people in the 2008 election increased from 49 to 51.1 percent, the highest since 1992. In fact, young people are the only age group among whom turnout increased in 2008. Barack Obama’s margin among younger voters improved on John Kerry’s 2004 performance by 11 percentage points, rising from 55 to 66 percent.
With Obama capturing an astonishing two-thirds of the youth vote, voters under the age of 30, sometimes called Generation Y, might be more appropriately called the Obama Generation. It’s clear that Obama will shape the political worldview of this generation for decades to come.
The economic crisis represents the most important area where the success or failure of the Obama administration will shape a generation’s worldview. Young people are experiencing this recession differently from their elders.
My survey research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Democracy Corps have been tracking the state of the youth vote since 2004, when Kerry won voters under 30, but lost every other age group except voters over 70 years old, the New Deal generation. (Since Obama’s emergence as a presidential candidate in 2007, Democracy Corps initiated a “Youth for the Win” series of polls with the broadest possible scope, tracking the political worldview and habits of younger voters with multi-mode techniques, incorporating traditional landline phone research with interviews gathered by cellphone and online.)
The research found what the exit polls only hinted at—this generation is more politically progressive than its elders in ways that are not merely a function of age or even an affinity for something new against something old. Its members are more likely to identify as Democratic and offer a range of more progressive viewpoints than all other older generations, a difference that is likely to be enduring. The youth vote for Obama was 21 percentage points greater than among those voters 65 years old or older— 66 to 45 percent. This result built upon the 2006 election, when 60 percent of voters under age 30 voted for Democratic candidates, compared to 49 percent of voters 65 and older.
While not ideologically monolithic in their view—for example, young people are no different from older generations on abortion rights—this generation is more liberal than the baby boomers. Asked their ideology, 27 percent of voters under 30 identify themselves as liberal, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers, and 17 percent of seniors. On the issues, younger people are more likely to favor gay marriage and a range of LGBT rights; for example, 53 percent of young people believe gays and lesbians should have the same right to marry as straight couples, while only 24 percent of adults over 50 agree. Young people also support greater environmental protection, a stronger and more prominent role for government in helping the disadvantaged, and are more hostile to the war in Iraq.
The emergence of the Obama Generation has its roots in deep structural factors. These underlying demographic, social, and economic shifts describe a vastly changed America.
Large-scale demographic shifts in racial and ethnic diversity and family structure make this generation more Democratic than all others. By 2040, the country will become majority non-white. Within the Obama Generation, only 69 percent are white, compared to 85 percent of those over 55. Both African Americans and Hispanics are heavily Democratic in their voting—95 percent of African Americans voted for Obama in 2008, a 7 percentage point increase since 2004, while 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama, a rise of 14 percentage points.
Changes in the family—both the decline of the “traditional” marriage through divorce and single parenthood and the overall decline in marriage rates—mean that more people than ever grow up in homes without married parents. In fact, 26 percent of all people under the age of 21 are living with a single parent. People who grow up in nontraditional homes and who themselves delay or forgo marriage are considerably more liberal. In 2008, 65 percent of unmarried voters supported Obama compared to 47 percent of married voters. Among younger voters, the gap is even greater—77 percent of unmarried younger voters supported Obama compared to 42 percent of married younger voters.
The changes that are making younger people more likely to identify and vote Democratic will be dependent on what happens next; the decisions the Obama administration makes will likely prove formative.
The current economic crisis represents the most important area where the success or failure of the Obama administration will shape a generation’s worldview. Young people are experiencing this recession differently from their elders. They simply have fewer job opportunities and more debt than previous generations. This is a “cash poor” generation that shuffles along day to day with credit cards, delaying or forgoing many of the essential factors that lead to long-term financial stability, such as attending college, getting married or buying a home. Even when the economy finally improves, their ability to lay the foundation for a stable economic future has already been severely impaired.
This is also a generation that has not yet experienced a government that has worked effectively or provided them with much help. It is difficult to point to any Bush policy that had a direct impact on the financial well-being of younger people. His regressive tax-cut policy, after all, was geared toward wealthier people or people married with families. College became less affordable during the Bush years and deregulation allowed credit-card companies to engage in practices that exacerbated young people’s credit problems. The growing gap between rich and poor is not a new story, but it particularly affects younger people without a college education, especially young people of color.
Young people are eager, if not desperate, for a dramatic effort to improve their lot. They support Obama’s economic-recovery package resoundingly by 68 percent—and in much higher numbers than all Americans ( 55 percent). They are also confident that his efforts will work—71 percent are very or somewhat confident that Obama’s economic plan will improve the economy and 68 percent are very or somewhat confident it will improve their own personal economic situation. While there has been criticism of Obama’s stimulus package and budget because of their sheer size, there is no evidence that young people have the same concern as other voters about deficit spending. For instance, in the post-election period, younger people were much more likely than older voters to worry that we would not spend enough to stimulate the economy rather than spend too much ( 67 percent not spend enough among young people versus 49 percent in the electorate overall). In early March, 65 percent of younger voters said that they trusted the Democrats more than the Republicans on the budget deficit, compared to just 46 percent among voters overall.
The Bush experience and the Republican hostility to Obama are solidifying the belief among young people that Republicans have few if any answers for them. The GOP’s ratings stand at just 29 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable, the inverse image of the Democratic Party (48 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable). Sixty percent say that Democrats do a better job paying attention to the issues affecting young people and favor Democrats over Republicans on jobs and the economy by a 32 percentage-point margin. The Republican Party, now at the nadir of its popularity, is becoming more than a non-entity among young people. It is in danger of becoming completely toxic.
In this context of profoundly challenging economic times and an unacceptable Republican Party, Obama has the possibility of changing the nation’s political culture through positive government action on reform, investment, and regulation. Since the election, the parallels between 1932 and 2008, between Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Obama’s possibility, have become the heated subject of debate among historians, economists, and pundits. FDR was able to enact substantial programs that changed not just the way people think about government, but also the trajectory of their lives. Those reforms cemented a New Deal electoral majority that lasted for years.
If Obama succeeds in not just offering, but passing comprehensive initiatives that directly affect the lives of the younger generation, we may see the same kind of political legacy. Universal health care, a new energy policy, affordable college education, and regulation that protects the aspiring classes and ensures greater equity for workers, would profoundly alter how young people see government. Then, the Obama Generation would not simply be a fashionable tag, but would prevail for a long time to come.
Anna Greenberg is senior vice president of polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and has a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago.