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The Fight for Millennials


President Obama carried the 18-to-29-year-old voting bloc by 34 points in 2008 and by 23 points last year. But a new national survey of millennial voters conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics suggests this emerging generation might not be as locked into the Democratic camp as conventional wisdom suggests, and that young voters exhibit some of the same stark partisan divides as older Americans.

In the study of 3,013 millennials, conducted online by GfK, Obama’s job approval was at 52 percent, with a disapproval rate of 46 percent (the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points). That is only slightly better than the Huffington Post/Pollster.com averages and theRealClearPolitics.com averages of all national polls among Americans over 18 years of age, both of which show 48 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval.

At the same time, the gap between those young voters who consider themselves Democrats and those who identify more with the Republican Party is the size of the Grand Canyon, just as it is with older generations. Among Democrats ages 18-29, Obama enjoys an 85 percent approval rating, but among Republicans in that same age cohort, his approval rating is just 11 percent, a 74-point difference, compared with a 63-point difference in the same survey a year ago.

On specific issues, the younger voters gave far less favorable assessments of the president’s job than of his overall performance. For his handling of both gun violence and the economy, Obama won only 42 percent approval, with 56 percent disapproval. Just 36 percent approved, and 62 percent disapproved, of his handling of the federal budget deficit; on health care, 45 percent approved and 53 percent disapproved. The president’s policy toward Iran yielded a closer but still negative verdict, with 47 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving. The 52 percent overall approval rate suggests that the Obama brand is moderately popular, but when it comes down to specific performance, assessments—even among this group considered a part of his base—are tepid.

More important, the poll shows that young voters’ trust in their leaders and political institutions is low and dropping.

Only 39 percent said they trusted the president to do the right thing either all or most of the time; 60 percent said the opposite. Just 18 percent said they trusted Congress to do the right thing all or most of the time; 81 percent said they did not. The federal government as a whole fared only marginally better: 22 percent trusted it all or most of the time, but 77 percent did not. The Supreme Court scored somewhat better but was still upside down: 40 percent trusted the justices, 58 percent did not.

Respondents similarly showed little trust in other institutions, including the United Nations, their state government, their local government, Wall Street, and the media. The media registered just 11 percent approval, the worst rating of any group measured, trailing Wall Street by 1 point. The only group that the majority of respondents trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time was the U.S. military, with 54 percent trusting it and 46 percent not, a stark contrast from what a poll would have showed during my days in that age group during the Vietnam War.

Walking through the data from this survey, the 23rd major release since this poll of younger voters was inaugurated in 1980, the numbers rang very true to me.

This week, I am completing a semester as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, leading a study group on U.S. elections, particularly last year’s presidential and congressional contests. I’ve brought in some of the top experts in the business, including Democrats, Republicans, and independent analysts, to spend 90-minute, off-the-record, weekly sessions with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty and members of the Cambridge community. This experience—along with meeting with students, lecturing on campus, and speaking with students on at least half a dozen other campuses in the last year and a half—leads me to believe that while the new generation is fairly liberal on environmental issues and very tolerant, almost libertarian, on social and cultural issues, its view of government is far more nuanced.

While millennials aren’t antigovernment per se, they are very skeptical about government’s ability to effectively deal with problems. Quite simply, in their lifetimes, they have not seen government work effectively or responsively. For the most part, they don’t expect to receive the same benefits, such as Social Security, as their parents and grandparents. Their cynicism about leaders is high and getting higher.

Having said all that, I believe there is a freshness to this generation; millennials appear unencumbered by some of the baggage that previous generations carried. People of this age group seem more open to alternative approaches to dealing with policy issues than the standard more-government-is-always-better approach that Democrats are tempted to pursue as well as the government-is-always-evil approach associated with Republicans.

As this millennial cohort becomes more engaged in the political process, gaining power as the World War II and Korean War generations—and, soon, the Vietnam War generation—wane, its members seem more up for grabs than many analysts imagine, provided that Republicans deemphasize social and cultural positions that the younger voters clearly do not share.

This article appears in the May 4, 2013, edition of National Journal.

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