Are Young Voters Turning on Obama?

A new study shows a dropoff in support for the president. But does it mean Milennials have soured on Obama, or that youngsters just joining the pool don’t see much to be excited about?

Whether he’s slow-jamming the news, sitting for an interview on The Daily Show, or tweeting at Katy Perry (don’t forget to use a hashtag: #ROAR!), President Obama has always found it easy to cultivate a base of support among the youngest voters. In 2008, Obama won the under-30 vote by a whopping 43-point margin, and in 2012 he continued to trounce his Republican opponent among the young, winning 60 percent to Romney’s 37 percent.

But the magic couldn’t last forever.

Yesterday’s release of the semi-annual Harvard Institute of Politics youth survey indicates young voters may be leaning away from the President and his policies. Only 41 percent of these young voters surveyed approve of the job Obama is doing. A majority say they disapprove of the health care reform law, and the results are identical whether the law is called “Obamacare” or “the Affordable Care Act” in the question. Half think the law will make their health care costs go up, and at least four out of 10 think the quality of their health care will get worse.

The way young voters feel about Obama doesn’t just matter in 2014 or even 2016. Despite the conventional wisdom that young voters don’t matter in politics, the way a voter first looks at politics when they come of age resonates throughout their voting behavior through their lifetimes. Just last month, Pew Research Center released a study showing that if you came of age under Nixon, you’re more likely to vote Democratic, even to this day. Came of age during the Reagan years? You’re still more likely to lean Republican.

So will Generation Obama lean leftward forever, or does this Harvard poll show that the spell may be broken?

To better understand what’s happening with today’s “youth vote,” first consider this fact: someone who turned eighteen on election day last year would have been just six years old on September 11, 2001. They would have been eighth graders during Obama’s first election.

I’ll violate some rules of decorum here by revealing my age: I am 29 years old. I’m a few short months away from aging out of “the youth vote” entirely. And I have about as much in common with today’s high school seniors as I do with my own parents. We researchers and pundits lump 18-year-olds and 29-year-olds into the same bucket when we talk about the “youth vote,” but the truth is that the back end of the “Millennial” generation has little memory of “hope and change” at all.

And the data show it. Harvard rolled out a chart of party identification by age, which showed that in November 2009, some 43 percent of those aged 18-24 called themselves Democrats. Four years later, that has fallen to 31 percent. A huge drop to be sure, but that doesn’t mean people were necessarily changing their minds; it mostly means last election cycle’s bright-eyed kiddo has had a few birthdays. Our gender and race don’t change much year to year, but each of us is constantly moving up in our age bracket. And sure enough, when you look at the Harvard survey’s 25-29 year olds, they’re as Democratic as ever.

Republicans have long held on to the belief that as young voters get older, they’ll snap out of their infatuation with the president and move to the right. But that’s an incorrect assumption. (Consider that in 2000, George W. Bush lost senior citizens by four points, but only lost young voters by two.) Instead, Obama generation is getting older and still hanging on, while a new crop of youngsters are getting the right to vote and are hardly smitten with the Democratic Party.

The “youth vote” is hardly monolithic. Republicans may have a tough time breaking through with the group of voters who are still hoping that Obama will bring the change they’ve been waiting for, but there’s a whole new group of young voters eager to hear what the alternative is to a President and a party they’ve not been terribly impressed with. It’s up to Republicans to make something of that opportunity and to not let another batch of young voters slip away.