The key to winning any election is mass appeal. In simple terms: If a candidate can convince the majority of the electorate that he or she is the most favorable option, the path to the Capitol is paved in gold. Naturally, due to demographic and ideological complexities, members of both parties work incessantly to capture the support of various cohorts — groups of concentrated supporters that can best be defined by socioeconomic status, race, gender and, of increasing importance, age.
Enter the Millennial generation (also known as Gen Y), a diverse mass of perceptive youths who were raised on MTV, educated via the Internet and have more tools for connectivity than any generation in American history. Swimming in an ocean of infotainment and dialogue-inducing technologies, it’s no surprise that Gen Y has managed to evolve into a troop of socially conscious, politically opinionated and heavily engaged citizens.
Who are these influential voters, you ask? According to the New Politics Institute, “The ‘Millennial Generation’ is becoming the most common name for young people born roughly in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s.” By all calculations, this force of young people constitutes the most diverse and, quite possibly, the most politically powerful generation in American history. As a result, candidates and political strategists on both sides of the aisle are working incessantly to find the magic formula that will sway Millennial voters to either side of the political spectrum.
In a Feb. 2010 report by The Pew Research Center, Millennials were described in the following terms: “They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.” The aforementioned elements, mixed with Gen Y’s connective, information-hungry characteristics and an overall wary view of human nature (but support for government involvement in social issues), combine to form a future of sociopolitical uncertainty.
That in mind, if recent elections are any indicator of where Gen Y’s ideological capital is headed, contemporary prospects are seemingly grim for the American right. In the past two presidential cycles, the majority of Millennials turned out in support of left-of-center candidates. The Center for American Progress reports that, in 2008, 66% of Millennials supported Barack Obama, while only 32% supported John McCain. This margin of 34 percentage points was up from a nine-point margin amongst Gen Yers in the 2004 presidential election. In addition to polling numbers, Millennials tend to trend more liberal on a number of social issues, including gay marriage, abortion and the origins of life (i.e. evolution vs. creationism).
Without a doubt, the ideological tilt of the Millennial generation thus far should cause alarm in conservative circles, while highlighting the need for more intensive youth engagement. However, the news isn’t all bad for conservatives, as there are signs that show the left does not have unwavering Gen Y support. Earlier this year, Michael Dimock, associate director for research for the Pew Research Center, made the claim that Democrats have potentially overestimated the under-30 embracement of liberal policy. Dimock claims that the majority of young people are politically independent. The Pew report, for instance, shows that 62% of Millennial voters affiliated with Democrats in 2008, with only 30% voicing support for Republicans. But in 2009, Democratic affiliation shrunk to 54%, with 40% claiming Republican allegiance. If anything, this rapid change shows that Millennial support may be more fluid that many politicos previously assumed.
There are still many lessons to be learned about Gen Y. Whether it was attachment to the appeal of Obama as a national figure or a rejection of Bush-era policies, one thing is for certain: The Obama campaign played the youth card beautifully in 2008, thus harnessing the political power of an eager generation of voters. A telling, yet relatively unexamined moment in the 2008 campaign, occurred when David Axlerod was interviewed following the Iowa caucus. Axlerod commented on Millennials, saying, “These kids are going to win it for us… They think they’re changing the world… We need more of that.” In mid sentence, Robert Gibbs awkwardly intervened, saying, “The good news is, I think they are.”
Axlerod’s statement provided a small lens into the campaign’s strategy of politically capitalizing off of young voters. The end result was extremely favorable for Obama’s team and serves as a lesson to be learned for the right.
As the 2010 midterm elections approach, with the 2012 presidential election falling directly behind, it is becoming increasingly important that political scientists study the complex elements that comprise America’s Millennial generation. The potential ramifications of ignoring the beliefs and political leanings of this important voting bloc may be felt at the polls. Likewise, understanding and capitalizing on the inclinations held within provides a new platform for acquiring young supporters for decades to come.
After all, Gen Y will professionally, socially and economically shape America’s future. For better or for worse, the Millennials will likely be the most game-changing generation in American history.