The Washington Post

Republicans’ young-people problem

In politics, is age the great divider? Some of the youngest voices at CPAC, the largest annual conservative conference, weighed in on the party's future. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Everyone knows by now that Republicans have a major demographic problem: The party is struggling to attract nonwhite voters even as that segment of the electorate keeps growing.

But a new study by the Pew Research Center on millennials — defined as those between the ages of 18 and 33 — suggests that Republicans will have another major demographic issue on their hands in future elections: Young people are more liberal and are more inclined to support Democrats than the generations that have come before them.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

The findings suggest that millennials’ attraction to Democratic and liberal policies extends beyond the candidacy (and presidency) of Barack Obama.

Obama’s 34-point victory among 18-to-29-year-olds in 2008, and his 24-point margin four years later, showed that he had an ability unique among politicians — Democrats or Republicans — to motivate and unite an age group that has been the perennial sleeping giant of American politics. But Republicans have held out hope that without a historic figure like Obama leading the ticket, millennials will be back in play in 2016 and beyond.

A cursory read of Pew’s massive survey seems to suggest that those hopes have merit. Half of all millennials describe themselves as political independents, more than 10 percentage points higher than any other generation tested by Pew. Just three in 10 (31 percent) said there was a “great deal” of difference between the two parties. The president’s approval rating among millennials has tumbled.

But dig slightly deeper into the numbers, and it’s clear that the Democratic tendencies among millennials extend far beyond Obama.

When millennial independents are asked which party they lean toward, 50 percent say they identify as Democratic or lean toward the Democratic Party. Just 34 percent identify as Republican or lean that way. (One thing millennials have in common with all other generations: Independents are mostly closet partisans.)

Three in 10 millennials identify as liberal in their political beliefs, 39 percent call themselves moderate, and 26 percent consider themselves conservative. That makes millennials the only generation with more self-identified liberals than conservatives. (By comparison, just 18 percent of the “silent generation” — people born between 1928 and 1945 — identify as liberal, while 45 percent call themselves conservative.)

More important — and ultimately more impactful, politically speaking — is how millennials feel about issues in the national conversation. Time and again, they come down on the more liberal side of those arguments.

“Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization,” according to a Pew overview of the data.

Nearly seven in 10 millennials (68 percent) support same-sex marriage, a marked increase even from a decade ago, when 44 percent backed it. Fifty-five percent of millennials say illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States and have a chance to apply for citizenship. Fifty-six percent of millennials say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. On each of those issues, millennials’ views come far closer to the Democratic Party’s position than where the Republican Party — and in particular, its base — finds itself.

And, on the right role for government to play in people’s lives, a majority of millennials (53 percent) favor a bigger government that provides more services, while 38 percent find a smaller government with fewer services more appealing. That’s almost exactly the opposite of the other generations Pew tested; all three of them — silent, baby boomer and X — preferred a smaller government.

Just wait, the naysayers of this data on millennials will say: Everyone starts off liberal and gets more conservative as they age. It’s absolutely possible that this will happen, and it’s absolutely impossible to test — short of inventing a time machine and traveling to the future.

But there are a few numbers in the Pew data that should give Republicans pause if they assume that millennials will get more conservative. Forty-eight percent of millennials say their views have become more liberal as they’ve aged — “aged” being a relative term, since we are talking about people under 34 — while 42 percent say their views have grown more conservative. When it comes to social issues, nearly six in 10 (57 percent) of millennials say they have grown more liberal as they’ve gotten older.

Those numbers are daunting for Republicans but not determinative. After all, the party is on the verge of a major fight for its future direction — the 2016 presidential race, anyone? — and already there are voices within the GOP crafting a message that, given the Pew findings, could be more appealing to millennials than what Republicans have put forward in recent years.

Take Sen. Rand Paul’s speech at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. It was heavy on libertarian themes and suffused with a distrust of government. “We will not submit, and we will not trade our liberty for security, not now, not ever,” the senator from Kentucky thundered.

That’s a message millennials will respond to — whether it’s delivered by a Democrat or a Republican.

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