The Institute of Politics’s Harvard Public Opinion Project is out with its semiannual survey, one in a series examining millennials’ opinions. It paints a remarkable portrait of youth activism — and, to the chagrin of Republicans, an embrace of progressivism. The poll finds:
Overall, 37 percent of Americans under 30 indicates that they will “definitely be voting,” compared to 23 percent who said the same in 2014, and 31 percent in 2010, the year of the last “wave” election.
Young Democrats are driving nearly all of the increase in enthusiasm; a majority (51%) report that they will “definitely” vote in November, which represents a 9-percentage point increase since November 2017 and is significantly larger than the 36 percent of Republicans who say the same. At this point in the 2014 election cycle, 28 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of Republicans indicated that they would “definitely” be voting. In the Spring of 2010, 35 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans held a similar interest in voting.
President Trump, it seems, has not merely launched a period of democratic activism, but has also possibly shaped the political mind-set of the largest generation of voters ever.
Steven Olikara, who heads the Millennial Action Project, tells me: “We are on the verge of the highest millennial vote turnout ever for a midterm election. Young voters are hungry for a change.” He added, “In this context, change means a Democratic-led Congress, and young Democrats are most energized. At the same time, majorities of millennials polled disapprove of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.” He also noted, “There is a larger story here that will be very disruptive to the partisan status quo down the road — especially now that millennials are ready to show up at the ballot box.”
In the short run, this means overwhelming support for Democrats in the midterm elections. (“In Fall 2017, there was a 32-point partisan gap among the most likely young voters, 65 percent preferring Democrats control Congress, with 33 percent favoring Republicans. Today, the gap has increased to 41 points, 69 percent supporting Democrats and 28 percent Republicans.”) In the longer term, this may signal a repudiation of the GOP and its policies.
Consider the stark numbers. Only 25 percent of American adults under 30 approve of Trump’s performance, while 72 percent disapprove. They disapprove by huge margins on his handling of the economy (34 percent approve, 63 percent don’t), climate change (22/75), health care (27/70), tax reform (31/65), guns (24/72) and race relations (21/75). His performance on national security matters — the Islamic State (31/65) and North Korea (27/69) — is not rated much better. Young Americans evidence extreme skepticism, saying they consider a slew of institutions (the presidency, the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, media, Wall Street) as untrustworthy all or most of the time. (The exceptions include the military and their own universities.) They trust Amazon and Google much more than they do Twitter, Facebook and Uber — but none of these technology giants have the trust of a majority.
So far these voters are extremely liberal. Asked to identify their political outlook, 41 percent say they are liberal or “moderate leaning liberal,” 27 percent say they are moderate, and 32 percent say they are conservative or “moderate leaning conservative.” If the GOP is characterized as a purely conservative party (as it describes itself), more than 3 out of 4 voters in this demographic will be hostile toward the party.
There are several points worth noting here. First, for these voters, “conservatism” is being defined by the Trump GOP. They may have no memory or knowledge of President Ronald Reagan’s brand of optimistic, open conservatism, or of Presidents George H.W. Bush’s and George W. Bush’s kinder-gentler or compassionate conservatism, respectively. This right-wing populist incarnation of the GOP is the only GOP that they know — one they intensely dislike. Second, we’ve yet to see if this generation of young voters will turn out in numbers much greater than the preceding generations. If their excitement fades, Democrats won’t be able to rely on these voters, especially in non-presidential election years. Finally, appeals framed as “trust us” or “party loyalty” are likely to fall on deaf ears with these voters. Similarly, this generation is not likely to place blind faith in the federal government. However, messages based on values (e.g. environmentalism, racial tolerance) and rooted in science or other verifiable evidence may be persuasive.
The bad news is that the degree of distrust is sky-high among millennials. Functional democracy relies on some degree of trust in its institutions and leaders. The good news, however, is that this is not a generation that is likely to be attracted to right-wing populism rooted in xenophobia and know-nothingism.