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Millennial voters are changing the American political landscape

By Jo Coghlan - posted Tuesday, 12 July 2011


A recent poll in America has found that a majority of young voters was concerned about the state of the American economy and that this concern could impact on the 2012 presidential election. While Obama won this age bracket by 34 percentage points in 2008, what does the political landscape for young voters look like today? And will young voters re-elect Obama?

Concerns about the state of the American economy may turn out to be short lived. Young voters, or Millennial voters (those born between 1982 and 2003) are more progressive than their predecessors, Generation X. Millennial voters are very distinctive from the divided, moralistic Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and the cynical, individualistic Generation X (born 1965-1981), the two generations that preceded them and who are their parents. In fact millennial voters are emerging as one of the most critical, and progressive, voting blocs in America. It is this that is transforming the American political landscape.

Age is a factor in partisanship in America, just as it is elsewhere. Younger people have tended to be more numerous on the Left, and older people on the Right. Barack Obama's 2008 victory potentially was more historically significant because of the support he received from millennial voters. Obama won voters under 30 by roughly two-to-one, compared with barely half for John Kerry, leaving some political analysts talking of the prospect of long-term domination of the Democrats in American politics.

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There are about 95 million millennial voters who are already of voting age. Millennial adults are 60 per cent white and 40 per cent minority (18 per cent Hispanic, 14 per cent black, 5 per cent Asian, and 3 per cent other). The proportion of minority millennial adults will rise to 44 per cent in 2020 (21 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, 6 percent Asian, and 3 percent other). This shift should make the millennial generation even more progressive, since minorities are usually the most progressive voters in America society.

Millennial' views are more progressive than older American voters, and stand in stark contrast to the more conservative views of Generation X. On many economic issues, millennial voters are more progressive than any previous generation. Their views about the economy and government are likely to have profound effects on politics in 2012 and beyond.

In 2008, 61 per cent of millennial voters cited the economy as one of the key issues in American politics. For the Democrats to consolidate themselves as the Party of the millennial generation, Obama must start to deliver economic stability. Just as the stimulus of the Second World War built a long period of prosperity and rewarded governments for the nation's increasingly affluent lifestyle, America's growth out of its current economic malaise will be rewarded by a generation of millennial voters.

If Obama and the Democrats can deliver prolonged economic growth with strong egalitarian distribution, the millennial voter may provide the bulwark of a quasi-permanent majority. The combined effect of Bush's social policies, the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, and the collapse of the economy clearly had a negative impact on the ideological views of millennial voters. If they can sort out the economy (no easy task I admit) the Democrats will have "a historic opportunity to become the majority party for at least four more decades".

This is because younger Americans today express broad and deep support for a progressive worldview on government, society, and world affairs and are hostile to many core elements of the conservative worldview. Indeed, millennial voters' positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion suggest that contemplating a continuation of the 'culture wars' could be self-defeating for Republicans. One likely positive consequence of the millennial generation's rise is an end to the 'culture wars' that has divided American politics and society for several decades.

With the rise of millennial voters, progressive issues will become more mainstream. Most support gay marriage, take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and generally display little interest in fighting over the divisive social issues of the past. Almost two-thirds agree that religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights. Acrimonious disputes about family and religious values, feminism, gay rights, and race have frequently crippled progressives' ability to make their case to American voters.

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Millennial voters believe there is a need for a stronger government to make the economy work better, help those in need, and provide more services. They reject the conservative view that government is the problem, and that free markets produce the best results for society. Rather, they support a more balanced approach to the economy. When asked in the 2008 National Election Study whether Americans needed a strong government to handle today's complex economic problems or whether the free market can handle these problems without government's involvement, millennial voters supported strong interventionist government (78 per cent). On other socio-economic issues millennial voters are resolute on the need for universal health care. Seventy-one percent agree that the federal government should guarantee health care coverage for all Americans. Millennial voters are pro-union, want to see increases in the minimum wage, progressive taxation reform, and increased funding for schools and universities.

But Obama needs to get the economy moving. In a poll conducted by Generation Opportunity (not unlike the Australian organisation GetUp) sixty-one percent of millennial voters say they would place higher priority on a candidate's position on economic issues rather than charisma and likability when they cast their vote for president in 2012. The Centre for American Progress found that while millennial voters like Obama they don't like the economic direction of the country. The poor economy appears to impact on young voters more than commonly believed. Even before the current U.S recession, a 2006 survey found 15 to 24 year-olds twice as likely to view the economy as the key political issue, little has changed in 2011. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama needs to remember; "it's the economy…" If Obama can stabilise, and even grow, the American economy, the Democrats can be the natural party of government in America.

Given their size and political views, millennial voters will reward them. According to the Centre for American Progress, they will have a strong and durable impact not only on the next presidential election, but elections for decades, but only if the economy improves, and improves soon.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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