Democrats’ Edge Among Millennials Slips
A Pro-Government, Socially Liberal Generation
This is part of a Pew Research Center series of reports exploring the behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial Generation
The “Millennial Generation” of young voters played a big role in the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but their attachment to the Democratic Party weakened markedly over the course of 2009. The Democratic advantage over the Republicans in party affiliation among young voters, including those who “lean” to a party, reached a whopping 62% to 30% margin in 2008. But by the end of 2009 this 32-point margin had shrunk to just 14 points: 54% Democrat, 40% Republican.
While the Republican Party picked up support from Millennials during 2009, this age group continues to favor the Democratic Party more than do other generations. And the underlying political values of this new generation continue to be significantly more liberal than those of other generations on many measures.1
Aside from partisanship, this distinctiveness is most evident in the Millennials’ social values, but can also be seen in greater support for government in general, and somewhat lower levels of support for an assertive national security policy compared with other generations. On other important dimensions, however, such as attitudes and values about business and about the social safety net, young people today are not particularly distinctive.
Young voters were Barack Obama’s strongest supporters in the 2008, but the Democratic Party’s advantage among Millennials predates Obama’s emergence on the political scene. Indeed, they had been the party’s best age group in both the 2004 and 2006 elections.
However, over the course of 2009 the Democratic Party’s advantage among Millennials in party affiliation weakened considerably from its high point in 2008. The most recent party affiliation data (from the fourth quarter of 2009) show that in terms of straight partisan identification, Democrats held a 36% to 24% lead over the GOP among Millennial voters, a significantly narrower edge than the nearly two-to-one margin (41% vs. 22%) in 2008. At the same time, the percentage of Millennials who said they lean Republican has nearly doubled, from 8% in 2008 to 15% at the end of 2009. There was little change in the percentage who leaned Democratic (20% in 2008 vs. 18% in late 2009). While the Democratic Party has a larger advantage among Millennials than it does among the two oldest cohorts, a greater proportion of the party’s support comes from people who do not explicitly identify as Democrats but only lean toward the party.
Despite the shift in partisan leaning among Millennials, the Republican Party has had limited success in increasing the number of Millennials who identify as — and not just lean — Republican. Just 22% of Millennial voters identified as Republican in 2008, and there was no significant rise in the latest polling (24% in the 4th quarter of 2009).
In another sign of sagging enthusiasm for the Democrats, Obama’s job approval rating slipped substantially over the past year among Millennials as well as among older age groups. Millennials were by far Obama’s strongest age group in the 2008 election — supporting him by about a two-to-one margin over John McCain, according to national exit polls. And in February 2009, 73% of Millennials approved of Obama’s job performance — the highest percentage in any age group. One year later, in February 2010, just 57% of Millennials give Obama a positive rating; still, Obama’s ratings among Millennials are eight points higher than among Generation Xers and Baby Boomers (49% each) and 19 points higher than among those in the Silent Generation (38%).
Even though their Democratic loyalties have diminished somewhat in the past year, Millennials retain a substantial pro-Democratic tilt. The political leanings of this youngest group of voters may be linked to their outlook on politics and society. Analysis of long-term political values finds that Millennials are far more liberal in a number of areas than are older Americans. This is reflected in Millennials’ views on contemporary policy issues as well, from their widespread belief that gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military to their reservations over the use of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and their continued preference for a more expansive role for government.
Moreover, Millennials are far more likely than older people to describe themselves as liberals. In the fourth quarter of 2009, as many Millennial voters identified themselves as liberals (29%) as conservatives (28%), while 40% said they are moderates. In every other age group, far more voters described their views as conservative than liberal. Among voters in Gen X, 38% described their political views as moderate and 38% said they were conservative; only 20% described themselves as liberal.
More Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation described their political views as conservative than moderate; 43% of Baby Boomer voters said they are conservative, 36% described themselves as moderate and only 18% said they are liberal. Similarly, 45% of voters in the Silent Generation described their views as conservative, 35% as moderate and 15% said they are liberal.
The data for this report are drawn from many sources, including regular political surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, as well as the Center’s ongoing study of political values which began in 1987. The values study has tracked a broad range of beliefs and values that shape public opinion and ultimately influence voting behavior. The study has been conducted 14 times and asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with a series of approximately 80 statements covering core beliefs about government, business, religion and several other topics. The most recent study in the series was conducted March 31-April 21, 2009 with a nationwide sample of 3,013 adults (see appendix for more details).
To get a clearer sense of the broad trends in each of several different kinds of attitudes and values, related questions in each substantive area were combined into a summary index. Respondents were sorted into generations (also referred to as cohorts) according to their age at the time of interview. Index scores for each generation of respondents are then presented graphically. Each line on the graph follows one cohort through the series of surveys. The Millennial cohort first appears in the 2003 survey, when enough interviews with adult members of that group were available for reliable reporting. Millennials in 2009, who ranged in age from 18 to 28, can usefully be compared with Gen X in 1994, when that cohort was roughly the same age. This allows a comparison of two cohorts at the same point in their own life cycles, though the circumstances of the political world were very different in 1994 and 2009.
 The generational cohorts used throughout this report are: Millennial (born after 1980), Generation X (born 1965-1980), Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964), Silent Generation (1928-1945), and Greatest Generation (1910-1927).