Both these Democratic hopes and Republican fears have a basis in reality. Democrats have won millennials and other young voters by wide margins in recent elections, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll drift right as they age. But many young voters are skeptical of the Democratic establishment, and this wouldn’t be the first prediction of a demographically guaranteed permanent Democratic majority that hasn’t come to pass.
With an extraordinarily high-stakes presidential election looming, it’s natural to wonder how millennials — or any other potentially critical demographic group — might vote. But taking the long view, it’s much less interesting to theorize about how millennials might evolve to slot into our current political alignment, and much more important to explore how they might upend that alignment altogether. Whether young Hispanic and Latino voters become more conservative; whether the shifting religious views of youthful Americans breaks up the evangelical Christian bloc of the Republican party; or a millennial boom in the South ends up shaking up the political map, this rising generation could confound all expectations.
In the short term, make no mistake: The current top-line political numbers on millennials are genuinely great for Democrats.
As of 2017, 59 percent of millennial registered voters either were Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party, and only 32 percentwere Republicans or Republican-leaners, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s the biggest break in favor of Democrats among registered voters of any generation: Both Gen X and baby boomers are more evenly split, while the Silent Generation is majority Republican or Republican-leaning.
In 2016, voters age 18 to 29 (a group that overlaps with but isn’t identical to millennials) voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 55-to-32 percent margin — the only age group to register a double-digit win margin for Clinton. And in a recent Monmouth University poll, only a quarter of Americans age 18 to 34 approved of now-President Trump’s job performance.
These aren’t great signs for the GOP’s long-term prospects with millennial voters. Researchers have shown that political events between age 14 and 24 powerfully affect the lifelong partisanship of white voters, and the chaos in Trump’s White House isn’t exactly pulling them toward the GOP.
And, as pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has pointed out, millennials might (like Gen X and unlike the boomers) resist the rightward pull of age and stay Democratic (or move left) as the years go by. Many millennials don’t clearly remember the Reagan-era economic boom, any part of the Gulf War or even a time before the early-2000s iteration of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Instead, we have memories of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and a recession that caused many to delay marriage, home-buying and many other rites of passage. It shouldn’t be surprising that a generation with those political memories doesn’t want to go back to the political past and “Make America Great Again.”
And Democrats have focused on millennials’ stated priorities priorities. In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, 19 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 said “the environment” was the most important issue; after all, of those polled, they’re the ones who will be alive the longest to reckon with the consequences of climate change. The same was true for 12 percent of Americans ages 30 to 44, 10 percent between ages 45 and 65, and 9 percent of those 65 years old or older. Democrats tend to be less skeptical of climate change and more interested in environmental policy broadly than Republicans. It’s hard to gauge the exact popularity of the Green New Deal (congressional Democrats and 2020 candidates still seem to be working out the details), but Democrats are at the very least making more of an effort than Republicans on this issue.
Health care is as important to young voters as it is to others: 1 in 5 18-to-29-year-olds say it’s the most important issue, as do 1 in 5 30-to-44-year-olds, and 19 percent of 45-to-64-year-olds. Nine years after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have struggled to advance alternatives to the Obama-era law, and Democrats have staked out advantageous political ground in defending it.
Immigration is less important to younger Americans — 8 percent of adults age 18 to 29 say it’s the most important issue, while 22 percent of those age 65 and older say it is. With the exception of protections for the so-called dreamers, Democrats have not treated the U.S. immigration system as an urgent issue in the same way Trump has. And foreign policy, terrorism and taxes, all areas of intense Republican focus, didn’t register as high priorities for many young voters.
The comparisons here are all inexact — most polls break out age groups from 18 to 29, and millennials are roughly 23 to 38 years old. But the basic message is clear: The Democratic Party tends to be more in sync with the priorities of young voters than the GOP, and perhaps as a result, Democratic candidates tend to get more young people’s votes.
The Democratic establishment shouldn’t get too smug about these numbers, though. Millennials may be naturally inclined to lean left. But that doesn’t mean that they venerate the party’s leaders or are committed to maintaining its organizational status quo.
In fact, they’re not regular voters at all, yet. According to University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald’s tabulation of census data, voters age 18 to 29 voted at a lower rate than any other age group. This isn’t particular to millennials — when Gen Xers were the youngest American voting group, they didn’t turn out at a high rate either. But this low turnout, combined with an aging population, blunts the political power of the youngest generation, at least at present. In 2020, the number of eligible millennial voters will be almost as high as the number of voting eligible baby boomers, but millennial turnout is often around 20 points lower.
And they don’t necessarily show much faith in the Democratic establishment. In a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll, 38 percent of young voters (and 48 percent of millennial “Likely Voters”) agreed that the Democratic Party “cares about people like me,” while 31 percent (and 32 percent of young likely voters) disagree. That’s a positive margin, but it’s far smaller than the 44-point margin by which House Democrats won young voters in the 2018 midterms, suggesting that young voters prefer Democrats to Republicans but don’t deeply love or trust their party.
That distrust is already showing up in major election results. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, who spent the campaign talking about Democratic socialism and criticizing the political system as rigged, won more young voters than Clinton and Trump combined, despite being older than both of them.
Establishment Democrats shouldn’t feel singled out here — millennials mistrust all sorts of establishments and institutions. They’re less religious than other generations, and fewer than half trust the federal government, the United Nations, Congress, the president or the Supreme Court to “do the right thing.”They’re also getting married later than past generations (though, contra stereotypes, almost half of millennials are married). Young voters, who didn’t live through an existential struggle with the Communist U.S.S.R. and came of age during a crushing recession, are also less enamored of capitalism than older generations. But Democratic leaders shouldn’t take millennials for granted if they want to keep their votes and increase their turnout.
Moreover, they shouldn’t assume that decades from now, a millennial-dominated politics will create an easy, conflict-free liberal dream world. Most young voters have looked at a political alignment defined by Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Trump — where the right is generally pro-business, often restrictionist on immigration, traditionally religious, rural in its character and overwhelmingly white, and the left is pro-government, pro-spending, increasingly racially and religiously diverse (though still majority white), reliant on votes from major cities and socially liberal — and decided that they’re on the left.
But our political alignment isn’t necessarily permanent. New politicians and events will crop up and reshuffle our divides or expose new ones. Right now, Democrats tend to win Hispanic, Latino, black and (more recently) white college-educated voters. But some of these voters, like Irish and Italian immigrants of the past, may eventually start to think of themselves as white or fracture along country-of-origin lines. Second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans are more likely than first-generation Hispanics to describe themselves as “Americans,” and third-or-higher generation Hispanics report facing less discrimination than more recent arrivals. Young displaced Puerto Ricans may have different political experiences than new arrivals from Venezuela who are watching an entirely different type of drama play out in their birthplace.
Or maybe new regional divides will form, shaking up each party’s presidential map. Millennials in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico, the Deep South, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York and Connecticut are mostly people of color, while millennials in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Utah, Missouri and Tennessee are generally whiter. Regional divides are nothing new in American politics, and the new racial geography could create even a new divide between the nation’s borders and its interior.
We also don’t know what the religious landscape will look like in the future. About 6 in 10 Americans age 18 to 29 believe in God with partial or complete certainty, and about 40 percent are somewhere between uncertain and certain they don’t believe. The religiously unaffiliated are Democrats now, but they may (like all other religious groups) develop differing belief systems, emphases and approaches to politics and spirituality over time. Deepak Chopra fans and followers of Sam Harris’s brand of atheism may not always gravitate toward the same politicians. And while older white evangelicals are currently the strongest force in the GOP, younger evangelicals might end up as part of a coalition that has yet to emerge.
Pete Buttigieg, the first viable presidential candidate from the millennial generation, likes to talk about “winning an era” — moving out of a Reaganite political order where, to win elections, Democrats often had to triangulate and tacitly agree to conservative assumptions about politics and policy. But it’s not clear that this new era, if it ever comes to pass, will be the durable, happy, slightly-left-Obama majority that “Mayor Pete” and other Democrats dream about.
Millennials are young and still in the process of figuring out who they are and what they want from the political process. And not all millennials will end up wanting the same things from politics. A young white woman in Vermont and a young Hispanic man in New Mexico may vote the same way now. But 20 years from now we’ll probably have found new ways to divide ourselves and new issues to fight over.