Partisan Politics: Where Do Millennials Stand Today?

I follow quite a few members of Gen Y in social media. It’s surprising to me how little, with a few exceptions like American University student, Chris Golden, they talk about politics.

Of the big three, Sex and Religion get more digital ink than Politics. While Millennials are hailed as possibly the next ‘civic generation’, their engagement seems to be more with making a difference through social causes than via political action.

Two new studies each purport to know where Gen Y’s partisan sympathies lie at this moment in our political history.  To my surprise, the results appear to be diametrically opposed.

The first study, by the ever-reliable Pew Research Center, shows support for the Democrats among Millennials took a nosedive in 2009 following the outpouring of support for Obama in ’08.

“The Democratic advantage over the Republicans in party affiliation among young voters, including those who “lean” to a party, reached a whopping 62% to 30% margin in 2008. But by the end of 2009 this 32-point margin had shrunk to just 14 points: 54% Democrat, 40% Republican.”

A quick look at the Pew chart above shows that the ‘shift’  is actually a return to the baseline level of 37% Republican/53% Democrat for Gen Y that was seen in 2007. This ‘bounce’ suggests that the Obama campaign represented an anomaly in Millennial’s political sentiments, not a fundamental shift in affiliation. According to Pew, the weakening may have a lot to do with diminished support for Obama and his policies among Millennials, similar to the waning seen for the general population.

“Obama’s job approval rating slipped substantially over the past year among Millennials as well as among older age groups.  … in February 2009, 73% of Millennials approved of Obama’s job performance — the highest percentage in any age group. One year later, in February 2010, just 57% of Millennials give Obama a positive rating.”

The second study by Frank Magid and Associates, which provided much of the data underlying Winograd and Hais’s book, Millennial Makeover, shows Gen Y’s Democrat leaning solidifying in 2009.

“In 2008, Millennials voted more than 2:1 for Obama over McCain (66% vs. 32%) and by roughly the same percentage (63% vs. 34%) for Democratic congressional candidates. Magid’s 2010 data shows this same level of Democratic identification persisting among Millennials who are attending college. Twice as many college students call themselves Democrats as Republicans (47% vs. 24%). Only 15% are independents, with a similar percentage unwilling to identify with any of those three choices.

The key difference here may be the words “Millennials who are attending college”. Indeed, if this is the case and student affiliation is stable, it suggests an even greater decline for the Dem’s among non-college educated Millennials.

While the two studies do not appear to agree on political party affiliation, they do agree on liberal-conservative self-identification.

According to Pew, ideologically, 29 percent of Millennials describe themselves as liberals, 28 percent say they are conservatives and 40 percent identify themselves as moderates.

Similar numbers are reported by Winograd and Hais in the Huffington Post for the Frank Magid study:  31 percent of college students 18 and older call themselves liberals or progressives, 20 percent say they are conservative and 30 percent  describe their political philosophy as moderate, while “20% haven’t learned enough in college yet to say just what their ideological orientation is.

What this tells me is that both parties have some work to do.

The Republicans have an opportunity perhaps to win over some of the moderates and undecided’s, or at least give them pause about voting Democrat in the mid-terms. The Democrats need to recapture their appeal by reinvigorating their party with some of the faded glow of the Obama victory.  The stakes are high. As Morley and Winograd wrote in their excellent 2007 book, Millennial Makeover, political affiliations tend to persist well beyond young adult years.

“Political behavior resarch has consistently indicated that once most individual, and hence most generations, take on a party identification, they maintain it throughout their lives. As sociologist J.V. Namenorth noted, “Value orientations do not change much during a generation’s life time. Committed during its early stages a generation most often carried its value commitments into the grave”. If the Democrats can maintain this initial generational allegiance during the next two presidential elections, they should gain a decisive electoral edge for decades to come.”

For both groups, the bigger issue is that partisan politics is simply not the biggest issue in the lives of Millennials, at least right now. They are preoccupied today with understanding what their place will be in this changed world, not which party offers the most ‘hope’ for change.