An Electoral Millennium – it’s not a matter of if, but when
The age of Trump will be remembered for many things. One of them will be the seemingly endless stream of political norms broken or endangered.
Indeed, we are setting all kinds of anomalies this year, starting with the large number of members of Congress not seeking reelection as well as the number of women seeking election to state legislatures and Congress.
Another one on the horizon could be a record for turnout in a midterm election. If this happens it will be due to a substantial increase in turnout among the members of the largest age cohort (80 million) in America–the much celebrated Millennials. (Roughly born between 1981 and 1996.)
Such a turn out almost certainly would determine if Democrats can win the 23 seats needed to capture the U.S. House of Representatives – as well as many state legislatures in states around the nation.
Why that might happen is encapsulated in some recent research conducted by the Pew Research Center documenting a pronounced Democratic skew among the Millennial electorate.
According to Pew: After the president’s first year in office, Millennials give President Trump the lowest job performance of any age group – less than 30 percent positive. Moreover, they are more likely to be Democratic than any other age cohort and ideologically are the most liberal. On one huge issue that might dominate the midterm they particularly stand out: They are more supportive than any other group of the belief that immigrants make the country stronger.
Their liberalism is pervasive. Regardless of party allegiance, they overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana, with Democratic Millennials at 77 percent and Republicans at 63 percent. Half of them (50%) believe it’s morally acceptable for couples to live together without any intention of getting married and four in ten think it’s morally acceptable to have children without being married. They are also huge supporters of gay marriage and transgender rights.
On the economy, they reject both the traditional labels of capitalism and socialism – focusing instead on pragmatic issues such as educational opportunity, jobs and gender equality.
They are wary of both big business and big government – and they are skeptics, even cynics, expressing less trust in other people than any other generations. Only one in five Millennials (19%) think that most people can be trusted. Statistically they are more likely to vote Democratic in the upcoming midterm election than any other age group.
Their party identification, a great predictor of voting behavior, is 44% Independent, 35% Democratic and only 17% Republican. Independents in fact comprise more than four of every ten Millennials, the largest among any age cohort. Between the two major parties, the Democratic advantage among Millennials owes heavily to a shift in recent years among female voters. Electorally the question is not whom will they vote for in 2018 – but will they vote?
The Harvard University Institute of Politics April survey results suggest they will. In that survey, a majority (53%) of Millennials said that they would definitely or probably vote. Another large number (55%) say will cast a ballot for the Democratic candidate compared to 21 percent for Republican candidates.
These finding explain the much-reported out-sized increase in enthusiasm by Democrats to vote in the midterm. That enthusiasm is being fueled by the Millennials, who seem almost twice as like to vote in 2018 compared to 2016.
Scholars continue to ponder why the probability of millennial turnout has increased so dramatically – and why. Democrats are positioned to benefit from it. Policy differences, particularly on immigration, loom large, as does general disenchantment with President Trump. But some large part of the Millennial surge stems from the horrific school shooting that killed 17 students in Parkland in south Florida. Over one thousand student rallies have taken place since that event, rallies now fueling millennial participation in politics as well as activism on gun control issues.
“If the election were held today” is a standard phrase pollsters use to encourage poll respondents to express their opinion accurately. So, what the polls really tell us is “if the election were held today,” many GOP candidates would lose.
But the election is still six months in the future – and unknown is whether Millennial enthusiasm endures or dissipates over that time.
But regardless of the 2018 outcomes a generational succession is imminent as Baby Boomer age and Millennials more and more come of age. Millennials now stand poised to transform American politics. When this happens – not if it happens – has become the central question in American electoral politics.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University.