Doyle McManus: ‘Millennials’ are a powerful part of electorate

03/20/2014 12:00 AM

03/19/2014 6:35 PM

If you’re older than 34, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re no longer the wave of the future. That distinction belongs to those born between 1980 and 2002, dubbed the “millennial generation” because they began to come of age at the turn of the century.

They’ve grown up, most of them have found jobs (although that hasn’t been easy), and they’re a bigger, more powerful part of the electorate every year. The millennials are a major reason President Obama won re-election in 2012; if nobody younger than 30 had voted that year, Mitt Romney would be in the White House today.

The independent Pew Research Center released a major report recently on the attitudes of the millennial generation, and here’s what it found:

The millennials are decidedly liberal, especially on social issues such as immigration and same-sex marriage. That helps explain why Obama won their votes by a 16-percentage point margin in 2012.

Among those younger than 34, self-declared liberals outnumber conservatives by a small margin, 31 to 29 percent, making them the only age group in which conservatives aren’t ahead. (Among baby boomers, a generation once considered decidedly anti-establishment, conservatives far outnumber liberals, 41 to 21 percent.)

The difference is even more striking when it comes to social issues. A majority of millennials, 55 percent, believe illegal immigrants should be granted a pathway to citizenship; that’s true of no other age group. According to Pew’s polls, a massive 68 percent of millennials support same-sex marriage; among baby boomers and older voters, support for same-sex marriage is still less than 50 percent. The numbers are similar on marijuana legalization: 69 percent of millennials think it’s a good idea; baby boomers may think they invented marijuana, but only about half think it ought to be legal.

But millennials are not necessarily committed Democrats; most of them don’t identify strongly with either party. And their standoffishness goes beyond politics: The millennials are “unmoored from institutions,” Pew says.

Still, no generation is a monolith, and there’s one ancient divide that still runs through the millennials: race and ethnicity.

In Pew’s polling, most nonwhite millennials approved of the president’s performance, but among white millennials, his approval rating was only 34 percent – about the same percentage Obama wins among older whites. Likewise, in the 2012 election, 51 percent of young white voters went for Romney. In 2008, 54 percent of young white voters went for Obama, which suggests that between 2008 and 2012 white millennials moved toward their parents’ politics.

So in one sense, the millennials’ political attitudes merely reflect their 21st-century demographics. The generation younger than 34 is far more diverse than its predecessors: 57 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 13 percent black and 6 percent Asian. (My generation, the baby boomers, is 72 percent white.) They’re a big part of the reason the American electorate will lose its white majority later this century.

But race isn’t the whole story. On social issues, including immigration and interracial marriage, white millennials are liberals, too.

There are lessons in those numbers for both political parties. Democrats must understand that while the next generation of voters is open to their message, they can’t be taken for granted; when they get older and pay more taxes, some will surely bolt. And Republicans had better accept that if they remain a party of social conservatives resisting immigration reform, they’re on their way out of business – soon.

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