Has Obama lost the millennial generation?

Obama for America

Article Highlights

  • In 2008 Barack Obama carried voters under age 30 by a 66%-32% margin. But times are changing.

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  • POLLS: It doesn’t look like the Millennials are still 2-1 Democratic

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  • Millennials personalize their world. But Obama Democrats’ policies are mid-20th century, command-and-control policies

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In 2008 Barack Obama carried voters under age 30 by a 66%-32% margin, according to the exit poll. In contrast, he carried voters 30 and over by only 50%-49%. (I joke that the only way Republicans could have won was if they had raised the voting age to 35.) Obama’s success among the Millennial generation, as these young voters are often called, was a hugely hopeful sign for the Democratic party and a dire one for the Republicans. Theses voters are bound to be a larger segment of the electorate in the future and voters tend to stick with the views they develop in the twenties and early thirties. If the members of this generation were to remain 2-1 Democratic over their lifetimes, it would be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.

"Democrats’ hopes that [Millennials] would go through life favoring them by something like a 2-1 margin have been dashed—and  this generation’s allegiance is very much up for grabs." --Michael BaroneBut it doesn’t look like the Millennials are still 2-1 Democratic, at least to judge from two recent polls conducted in late November and early December, one focusing entirely on Millennials conducted for Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the other the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll which focuses on the whole electorate.

The Harvard survey showed Barack Obama with a negative job rating from Millennials: 46% expressed approval, 51% disapproval. Against a generic Republican, Obama leads 35%-29%, hardly a vote of confidence. The generic Republican is getting just 3% less than John McCain did, while Obama is now getting 31% less than he did in November 2008. In pairings against actual candidates, Obama does a bit better, as he does in most national polls, leading Mitt Romney 37%-26% and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry by 39%-23%. But these are still dreadful results for Obama. Just about every Millennial knows him, and only a little more than one-third will vote for him. I don’t think it’s a fair assumption about Millennials (as it is usually among voters generally) that those not supporting him will almost all end up voting against him, as the Harvard results suggest that many Millennials have low information levels. But compare Obama’s 34% lead over John McCain among Millennials with his 11% lead over Mitt Romney among them. That’s a huge drop.

We see something similar in the Heartland Monitor poll. National Journal’s Ron Brownstein notes that Obama’s job approval among Millennials, 54%, is 12 points below his percentage support in the exit poll, and his job approval among white Millennials, 39%, is 15 points below his exit poll support. That’s the biggest decline among any demographic group on Brownstein’s chart.

Why have the Millennials soured on Obama? The Harvard survey makes it clear that they feel the nation is going in the wrong direction and are deeply disappointed with the economy. But I think something else may be at work here. After the 2008 election, I wrote that there was a tension between the way the Millennials live their lives and the policies of the Obama Democrats. Millennials personalize their world: they are an iPod, custom app, Facebook, 21st century generation whose members pride themselves on their uniqueness. In contrast, the Obama Democrats’ policies are mid-20th century centralized command-and-control policies which purport to treat individuals as interchangeable units—with favorable exceptions made for those who are connected with Democratic constituencies like labor unions (themselves an example of mass mobilization rather than individual choice). I suggested that Republicans and conservatives should argue that they are the ones who have policies which can enable Millennials to shape their own world and make their own way in life.

Is it possible that the dismal failure of the Obama economic policies and the threat (as most Americans see it) of Obamacare have led Millennials to understand this tension, and to have changed their political preference as a result? I don’t think these two polls can conclusively answer that question. But they at least suggest not just that Obama is losing support at the moment from the Millennials, but that the Democrats’ hopes that this generation would go through life favoring them by something like a 2-1 margin have been dashed—and that this generation’s allegiance is very much up for grabs.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI

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About the Author


  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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