In attempting to whitewash the consistently disastrous results that Democrats have faced in recent midterm elections President Obama has often said that “our voters . . . get excited about general elections.” The group he was referring to as “their” demographic is, in large part, young voters – the age group that has carried Barack Obama to the White House in the last two presidential elections.
But it’s short sighted to claim ownership of Millennial votes. While it is true that Democrats are on a winning streak with the youth vote, starting with Bill Clinton’s edge over George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, the recent margins won by President Obama far exceed historic norms.
In the first election where 18-year-olds were eligible to vote, some 52% of voters under age 30 cast their ballots for Richard Nixon. Prior to Obama, it was Ronald Reagan who held the record for winning the highest proportion of young voters at 59% in 1984. Indeed, in the 2000 election, George W. Bush only lost young voters by 2 points, while at the same time losing senior citizens (aged 65 and older) by 4 points.
A new poll of Millennials’ attitudes suggest that the needle of youth support may be pointing back toward Republicans, but it also begs the question of how Republicans should define success among young voters. Must the party win a majority in order to declare a victory? Or is it enough to simply minimize your losses amongst a difficult constituency such that they can be made up for among other voting groups?
Regardless of which side you come down on, the poll, courtesy of the Harvard Institute of Politics, provides evidence to support your argument. For instance, the poll finds that 55 percent of Millennial voters, ages 18 to 29, are currently rooting for a Democrat to win the presidency in 2016.
That seems like terrible news, until you remember that Barack Obama won the youth vote against John McCain in 2008 by an incredible 66 to 32 percent margin. Or that Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012 by a slightly less spectacular margin of 60 to 37. Set against those numbers this looks like tremendous progress. Indeed, it seems to parallel the 54-45 percent margin that young adults gave John Kerry in 2004 over George W. Bush, a margin that was small enough to allow Bush to win the presidency.
But the poll also provides some strong evidence that Republicans shouldn’t be willing to cede the age group at all. For instance, the poll shows that the younger subset of the 18- to 29-year-old demographic is the most conservative. Only 53 percent of those ages 18-24 currently prefer a Democratic president, whereas 57 percent of those ages 25-29 do, suggesting that those who came of political age during the post-hype Obama are much less enamored with his party.
That seems to be one reason that John Della Volpe, the institute’s polling director feels that young voters are “up for grabs” in 2016.
“There are plenty of opportunities for Republicans to make inroads with the generation,” he said. “If Republicans can hold the Democrat nominee to less than 60 percent of the young vote nationally, there chances are dramatically improved for a Republican Electoral College win, in my opinion.”
One of those opportunities arises from the fact that President Obama’s failure to deliver on the promise of hope and change has left many young adults disillusioned with government and tuned out of the elections. The poll shows that just 21 percent of young adults describe themselves as “politically engaged,” meaning that there is a wide swath of young voters looking to be inspired by a candidate with fresh ideas, not exactly something that Hillary Clinton brings to the table.
So, on the one hand, young adults continue to favor a Democrat for president, albeit by lesser margins than previous years – a situation which suggests that minimizing losses among the age group is an appropriate strategy. But on the other, the younger elements of the demographic are skewing more Republican and enormous numbers of young voters generally are up for grabs if the right candidate with the right ideas comes along.
That’s a big if, and one Republicans would be wise to address.