The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young people have bailed on Obama. Why that matters a lot.

One of President Obama's chief political assets has been his ability to excite young people like almost no politician in history. But the days of America's youth fawning over the president are over.

A new Harvard University Institute of Politics poll released Wednesday confirms what other surveys have shown in recent months: Millennials have soured on Obama so much this year that their opinion of him largely mirrors the American public's.

Even though Obama does not ever have to face another election, he should be worried about the findings for a couple of reasons, which we will dive into momentarily.

First, let's take a look at what the data show.

Only 41 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds say they approve of the job Obama is doing, according to the Harvard IOP poll, down 11 percentage points from April. Fifty-four percent say they disapprove. It's Obama's worst showing in the survey since becoming president. What's more, a majority of 18-to-24-year-olds say they would recall (!) the president if given a chance.

Other surveys have also shown steep declines in support for the president among young Americans. Obama's approval rating among 18-to-29-year-olds has dropped 23 points from the beginning of the year in Washington Post-ABC News polling, from 66 to 43 percent. Gallup's polling has shown a nearly identical decline.

What it means is that young people now view the president in largely the same light as the larger pool of all adults. Just take a look at this chart from Harvard IOP which maps Obama's approval rating among the young in their poll against his numbers among all adults according to Gallup.

The next logical question is why this matters for Obama's agenda. After all, he's run his last race.

The biggest issue on Obama's plate right now is the implementation of this health-care law, which has gotten off to a very rocky start. The law's success or failure will pivot heavily on young people. The Obama administration needs some 40 percent of those who sign up for new plans via the exchanges to be under 35, in order to keep premiums low and make the Affordable Care Act work as designed.

The thing is, only 29 percent of uninsured 18-to-29-year olds say they will definitely (13 percent) or likely (16 percent) enroll in new plans via the exchanges, the Harvard IOP poll shows.

Overall, the young simply don't like what they see when it comes to Obamacare. Young people disapprove of the law, believe it will make them pay more for health care and on balance see it making their quality of care worse rather than better.

One important thing worth noting: Young people have turned against Obama before and he survived. He went through it in 2011 and 2012, as the following chart shows. Despite that, Obama still carried a whopping 60 percent of the youth vote in 2012, not that far of his 66 percent clip in 2008.

So if young voters soured on Obama during his first term but largely came home and backed him in 2012, what is the impact of his latest downturn in popularity? One consequence is disengagement. Three-quarters of younger Americans say they don’t consider themselves politically engaged and only 34 percent say they’ll "definitely" vote in the 2014 midterm elections, the Harvard IOP poll shows. These are voters Democrats need to win key Senate and House seats, so their lagging participation could exact a toll.

To be clear, young voters continue to side with Democrats more than Republicans, and it’s likely Democrats will continue to hold a significant advantage among younger voters in presidential contests where they are motivated to vote by the campaign.

But Obama's concern is no longer the presidential election. It's what happens with his health-care law and what happens at the ballot box in 2014. Since these are Obama's proprieties, the extent to which his support among the young has eroded is nothing but bad news for him.