Millennials are far less partisan than older voters, and their concerns are not being given a voice by either party. And while it’s true that the GOP’s future is about as healthy as cancer, there’s similarly no reason to think we’re entering an era of Democratic ascendancy.
If that sounds surprising, it’s probably because it seemed that the one loud-and-clear message to come out of the 2012 presidential race was that the kids still loved Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for which he stands. In a contest between two equally unashamed wearers of mom jeans, Millennial voters between the ages of 18 and 29 picked Obama over everybody’s least-favorite uncle, Mitt Romney, by a whopping 60 percent to 36 percent.
Sure, that was a smaller margin than in 2008, when Obama pulled an amazing 66 percent to John McCain’s amazingly miserable 31 percent, but it still provided the cloud-like cushion by which the president easily won his second term. It’s incredible, really: Romney handily won a majority of votes from the 30-and-over crowd, but Obama’s ginormous landslide among Millennials was more than enough to give him a 5 million vote win and an easy-peasy 51 percent to 47 percent margin.
Pew Research has noted that the Democratic presidential candidate has easily carried the youth vote in each election since 2004 and underscored that Millennials “are far more likely than older voters to identify as Democrats than their older counterparts.” John Kerry—who mixed the charm of Frankenstein’s monster with a similar inability to utter coherent sentences and thoughts—beat Bush among the kids 54 percent to 47 percent.
After the 2012 election, according to Pew, barely a quarter of Millennials self-identified as Republican. When it comes to ideology, one-third of Millennials consider themselves liberals while just a quarter call themselves conservative.
Game, set, match, now and forever, amen. It looks like it’s Democrats from here to eternity. By Pew’s accounting, all the party of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid needs to do is sit and back and watch the landslides roll in.
Except this is just flat-out wrong. A new national poll conducted by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes Reason.com and Reason TV, the website and video channel I edit) and the Rupe Foundation reveals a very different reality, one in which Millennials are in fact far less partisan than older Americans and far more difficult to imagine as the salvation of the Democratic Party.
Conducted this past spring among a representative sample of nearly 2,400 18-to-29-year-olds, the Reason-Rupe Poll finds that younger voters aren’t just less beholden to two parties dreamed up before the Civil War, they speak a radically different political language too. Woe unto the politicians and parties that fail to grok this, as they will face only bigger and bigger losses in market share. As it stands, Gallup and others have already been charting the growth in unaffiliated voters for decades.
To be sure, there is virtually no good news for the GOP in the Reason-Rupe Poll. Just 22 percent of Millennials self-identify as Republican or lean that way while 43 percent of youth voters consider themselves Democrats or lean in that direction. A sizable 34 percent of Millennials are true independents (that is, they don’t lean in either direction).
But forget about the seemingly massive Democratic advantage. After growing up under the Bush and Obama administrations, the Millennials are overwhelmingly skeptical of government’s ability to do anything well.
Two-thirds agree that “government is usually inefficient and wasteful.” In 2009, that number was just 42 percent. Across a range of 15 issues (including privacy, drug policy, taxes, spending, health care, and more), neither party wins a majority of Millennials. About six in 10 believe that government regulators are the tools of the special interests they are supposed to police and that federal agencies routinely abuse their power. A solid majority (55 percent) says businesses are paying their fair share of taxes.
However, such crypto-libertarianism is countered by a very strong belief in the need for government to provide a safety net. Fully 70 percent say they believe in guaranteed housing, health care, and income for the country’s poorest people. When taxes are not mentioned, 54 percent of Millennials say they want a “larger government with more services” and just 44 percent say they want a “smaller government with fewer services” (these figures are in line with results from Pew).
Those percentages flip when Millennials are asked if they want a bigger government with more services even if it means paying higher taxes. In the latter case, 57 percent support smaller government and just 41 percent insist on bigger government—a finding that is consistent across gender and economic groups. They’re young, but they weren’t born yesterday. Millennials have a keen awareness that Social Security and Medicare are living on borrowed time and borrowed money and that today’s youth are unlikely to get anything out of such programs.
If there’s a unifying thought among Millennials, it’s that they want to be able to make decisions for themselves. Large, consistent majorities (even among self-identified Republicans) favor pot legalization and marriage equality and think that individuals should be allowed to eat trans fats, drink whatever size soda they want, gamble online, and smoke e-cigarettes in public places.
Whatever else helicopter parenting might have wrought, it didn’t kill interest in vice or belief in individual effort. About six in 10 believe that people can get ahead with hard work and that bad life choices are the main reason for weak performance in terms of economic success.
Fifty-five percent of Millennials say they want to open their own business some day. It’s true that 42 percent of respondents said they prefer socialism to capitalism, but only 16 percent could actually define socialism in any meaningful way. Most Millennials have a positive view of business and commerce and two-thirds say they want an economy managed by the free market rather than by the government.
Indeed, Millennials seem to be using familiar political terms in ways that are easy to misinterpret. Over 60 percent call themselves socially liberal while less than half dub themselves fiscally liberal. Yet Millennials told the Reason-Rupe folks not only that being in favor of gay marriage and legal pot were liberal positions, but that they made you liberal regardless of your economic views.
It might be tempting to write off 18-to-29-year-olds as callow, confused kids who just don’t see the obvious through-lines of the centuries-old Democratic or Republican identities. To a dyed-in-the-wool partisan, it makes obvious sense that a voter who is anti-abortion will also be pro-gun and in favor of a constitutional amendment on flag burning and serious cuts in the corporate income tax rate.
For libertarians, conservatives, and progressives alike, the Millennials’ lack of interest in our boldly systematic philosophical consistency speaks directly to the failure of public education. How dare these young voters not simply accept our conceits and arguments as their own! Who do they think are, writing their own script for who they are and what they believe? Don’t they know how much time we’ve spent on all this?
The simple fact is that the 21st century so far has been a total clusterfuck, especially for Millennials. Bush’s pledge to pursue a humble foreign policy metastisized into two long, ineffective, and awful wars. After running as a small-government conservative, he increased federal spending by more than 50 percent in real terms and then closed out his time at the top with the laugh line, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.”
Then came Obama, handsome rider of unicorns and dreamer of hope and change. He immediately passed a stimulus package that failed every test it set for itself (amazingly, it didn’t even spend money as quickly as it pledged!). Obamacare is still unpopular with the country at large and has only the slimmest approval among Millennials: the Reason-Rupe Poll finds 51 percent like it; that number goes down among younger people who are no longer on their parents’ dime.
Assumed to be the peace candidate, Obama tripled troop strength in Afghanistan and tried to keep American soldiers in Iraq forever, only leaving after the freely elected government there sent us packing. He raided a record number of medical marijuana dispensaries in California, still refuses to say he backs legalization, and has deported record number of immigrants.
After saying that he was against gay marriage, he miraculously “evolved” on the issue when it looked like he might need the gay vote to best Mitt Romney, thus enacting one of the most strategically timed conversions since Constantine got religion on the banks of the Tiber.
Then there’s his whole stance on privacy. In the wake of ongoing Snowden revelations about government surveillance programs that would make George W. Bush blush, the former constitutional law professor is saying he’s in favor of having a dialogue on privacy and all that jazz, but hey, he’s got a really busy day job.
Yeah, it’s Millennials who are confused, right?
This may be all the parties need to know if they really want to truly nail down the youth vote: According to the Reason-Rupe Poll, 53 percent of Millennial voters would support a candidate who is both socially liberal and fiscally conservative. If only the Dems or the Reps could cobble one or two together out back in the shed.
And for smug Democratic partisans who note that in the last three elections, their guy pulled 54 percent, 66 percent, and 60 percent of the youth vote, think about this: What happens when the GOP runs a candidate in 2016 that is 10 or 15 more years younger than Hillary Clinton? Or a candidate who isn’t openly hostile to gay marriage or legal pot?
Democrats are sniffing up the wrong pant leg if they think Millennials are firmly in the “you didn’t build that” coalition and will stand for unlimited spending and overreach by government. By the same token, if conservative Republicans are betting the future on gay-bashing, pot-hating, nativist candidates fond of bombing foreign countries, well, they’re shit out of luck, too.