Millennials’ lack of interest in 2014 midterms means trouble for Democrats

By Tommy Gilchrist
@TommyGilchrist
April 23, 2014

A recent study conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics suggests a worrying trend amongst 18 to 29 year-olds — and one that Democrats, above all, should be very concerned by. April polling shows that less than a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in this age bracket are definitely sure they will be voting come the midterm elections on Nov. 4 of this year – a drop of some 11 percent since the same question was asked back in November 2013.

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More importantly, for President Obama and the Democrats, is the finding by the same survey that Republicans seem to be much more enthused about voting this November; 44 percent of those who identified as Romney-voters say they are definitely voting in the midterms as opposed to only 35 percent of Obama’s supporters. This is bad news if the Democrats wish to retain control of the Senate, and disastrous if they even have a hope of taking control of the House as House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (perhaps too hopefully) predicts they might.

For those who think Stoyer’s dream is a long shot which – given the number of uncompetitive seats up for election – it might be, Hoyer points to a fundraising advantage for Democrats, lower poll numbers for congressional Republicans, divisions inside the GOP ranks, and a good recruiting class of Democratic challengers. Indeed, the Democrats need only to win 17 House seats to take overall control of Congress.

Voters in this 18 to 29-year-old age bracket, the “Millennials,” take much more liberal positions than older generations on the major policy issues of the day and are at the forefront of the recent surge in public support for equality in marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority say that abortion should be legal across the country in all or most cases, are supportive of immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and tend to express support for a more ‘activist government’ with a large social safety net. 68 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds favor same-sex marriage, compared to only 38 percent of those aged 65 and over. The gap on marijuana legalization is even larger; 69 percent of those born between 1981 and 1995 support such initiatives compared to less than 30 percent of those born before the Second World War. There are twice as many old folks (31 percent) who think that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to stay legally as opposed to the youth vote (16 percent).

The defining issue, however, for young voters is clearly emerging as action on climate change. A bipartisan study last year, commissioned by the League of Conservative Voters, shows that politicians – particularly those within the GOP – need to make some quick decisions about which mast they are going to pin their colors to. An overwhelming majority of voters under 30 understand the threat of climate change and already see the harmful effects of it, or expect to in their lifetime. 66 percent of young voters say climate change is a problem to address, while just 27 percent say climate change is a natural event that humans can’t affect, and only 3 percent don’t believe climate change is really happening. Around 80 percent of this demographic of voters support the action President Obama is taking to address climate change:

  • 79 percent say they are more likely to vote for someone who supported these steps;
  • 73 percent say they are less likely to vote for someone who opposed these steps;
  • Notably, over half of young Republican voters (52 percent) would be less likely to vote for someone who opposed the president’s plan.

However, none of this disguises a growing political disquiet amongst young voters; many Millennials seem to be gripped by a combination of angst and apathy when it comes to American politics. During the past year, trust in the president to “do the right thing” all or most of the time has decreased to 32 percent from 39 percent; the U.S. military has seen its level of trust drop from 54 percent to 47 percent, and the U.S. Supreme Court has fallen to 36 percent from 40 percent. Wall Street is trusted by around 12 percent of young Americans, roughly the same levels as in previous Harvard polls.

Why does this matter to Democrats, specifically? Using the excellent site 270towin, I plotted two electoral maps which highlight very clearly the threat of leaving 18-29 year-olds at home come election day. With the help of state-by-state exit polls from presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, and the swing between the two parties amongst different demographics, I was able to show what might happen to the electoral college in 2016 if only 18 to 29 year olds voted (in the first map), and the result (in the second map) if only those aged 65 and over were allowed to vote:

Only 18 to 29 year olds:

2016-electoral-college-18-29-year-olds

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Only those 65 and over:

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If ever the Democrats needed a “get out the vote’ push” it is right now. Congressional candidates must find policy platforms to stand on which will attract the youth vote to them, and must ensure that this base of voters is as energized and “fired up, ready to go” as they were for Barack Obama’s inaugural election year. If not, then Hillary Clinton’s job in 2016 will be all that much harder… and President Obama will be left as a lame duck for the remainder of his presidency.

Tommy GilchristTommy Gilchrist studied at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, where he studied physical geography. He was formerly an intern with the U.K. Conservative Party. He’s an avid follower of U.S. politics, and you can find his commentary here, on PolicyMic and on his personal blog

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