Obama has lost his hold on Millennials: Young people oppose gun control and affirmative action

Most political conventional wisdom pegs young voters and the not-yet-of-age as definitively liberal and probably tied to the Democratic Party for life. The saying goes that once a generation votes for the same party three times in a row, they’re lifelong adherents. The youth vote has gone to Obama and the Democrats in two successive presidential elections, but the all-important third may be elusive, for surprising ideological reasons.

Young voters have been one of the driving forces behind the recent surge in support for marriage equality and drug decriminalization, of course. But their party affiliation isn’t determinant there. Sixty-nine percent of voters under 29 support same-sex marriage, but 61% of young Republican voters do as well, and only 18% of them say gay couples raising children is bad for society. Sixty-one percent of voters under 29 also support legalization of marijuana.

This poll doesn’t have the same partisan generational breakdown as the marriage poll, but I would guess the ratio is similar, with a slight majority of young Republican voters opposing marijuana prohibition.

Support for gun control has also fallen the most among Millenial generation voters than other generations in just the last few years, from 59% in 2009 to 49% this year.

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Contrary to popular belief, young voters are also not more pro-abortion than other generations. Since the mid-90s, support for limitless abortion by voters under 29 has fallen the most of any generation (and has only risen in one, ages 50-64), at least until 2010.

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Similarly, support is highest for banning abortion in all circumstances among voters under 29:

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This could simply mean that young Republicans and young Democrats are more polarized than previous generations on the issue, with young Republicans holding more pro-life views than before, and young Democrats being more pro-choice. But even so, the trend lines clearly favor the former. Young voters over the last 20 years have gotten gradually more anti-abortion. (Admittedly, most self-identified libertarians are pro-choice, but for the purposes of this post, I am referring to the mostly pro-life libertarianism that has grown out of conservative circles since the Bush years).

And just last week, a new poll suggests young people are also trending right on race relations, if such a nebulous category of issues can be quantified in a left-right spectrum. 73% of those age 14-24, slightly younger than most voter polls, think society would be better off “colorblind,” or never considering race at all. Even more striking, 74% of white youth and 65% of non-white youth oppose affirmative action policies, which give preferential treatment to certain races on school admission, employment, and other systems.

Myopically, the NPR story about this “bias” poll sees only the problem that a colorblind generation can cause.

A few things seemed to be happening all at once here, according to Hales. Most respondents said they did not grow up discussing race in their homes — only a third of whites said race was discussed, and fewer than half of all people of color said the same.

Hales wondered if that might explain something he noticed in the focus groups conducted as part of this survey. (There were eight focus groups with respondents, each consisting of eight people.) “When we first introduced what we ‘d be talking about, people became really uncomfortable,” Hales said. “There’s this weird kind of snake-eating-its-tail thing where so many of our audience was brought up to be colorblind, to not talk about race. There’s this whole generation that is scared to tackle this subject, and they were brought up in a world where the topic was fraught with anxiety and danger.”

Certainly raising a whole generation to be colorblind might cause a lack of attention to be paid to vital racial issues for a while, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. If that generation maintains their colorblindness and raises their own children to do the same, we might actually be able to make significant progress toward a society of true racial equality.

In the meantime, the Millennial generation, more specifically voters under 30, are leaning heavily libertarian. They strongly favor gay rights, drug legalization, and oppose affirmative action, and are trending toward gun rights and pro-life views. The important thing for political strategists to note is that they also heavily identify as independent rather than with one of the two parties.

If Republicans do at least temporarily capitalize on this rightward shift in the young electorate, they shouldn’t expect to see it reflected in party identification unless that party label itself gives them something to be proud of in the long term.


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