Will Millennials Vote in November?
The second presidential debate left few observers willing to predict anything but an Obama victory in November. But one nagging question remains in the minds of many pundits. Will Millennials, whose overwhelming support for Senator Obama’s candidacy represents his margin of victory in polls in many battleground states, actually turnout to vote in November?
One such skeptic is Curtis Gans, an eminent researcher on voting trends and turnout at the American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, whose most recent report even goes so far as to deny the existence of the Millennial Generation. Aging Boomers like Tom Friedman have made the same public mistake, demonstrating just how convinced many leading thinkers among that generation, which is well represented among leading political commentators in the media, are that the political style of young people today is not like their own youthful political behavior was and is, therefore, not appropriate or useful.
Since Gans' research report was focused on, in his words, the increased, “almost record,” turnout in this year’s presidential primaries, it is particularly surprising that he chose this vehicle to announce his distaste for the Millennial Generation and its political style. Gans cites the work of William Damon as the source of his knowledge about this generation, which is strange given the large number of more well-documented studies of the Millennial Generation disproving Damon’s contention that the parents of Millennials are “creating a generation of young people who lack confidence and direction.” The evidence shows just the opposite.. If anything, employers and teachers who interact daily with Millennials complain that they are almost too confident, to the point of sounding “cheeky.”
This generation's self-confidence and orientation toward the group and the broader society has important political implications. Recent polling data from USAToday/CNN demonstrate that Millennials are paying close attention to the 2008 election and have every intention of voting, at numbers rivaling those of older voters. Their survey of more than 900 young Americans, taken Sept. 18-28 found that:
• 75 % of Millennials are registered to vote
• 73% plan to vote
• 64% have given "quite a lot" of thought to the election
Even Gans concedes that Millennials may vote in large numbers in this election. But he says that they will do so only be because of their fondness for Senator Barack Obama and not because of any long-term commitment to the political process. Millennials he says “were brought in by the uniqueness of Obama’s candidacy—precisely because he seemed to offer something different than the politics they had been eschewing.” He continues, “they won’t stay in if he’s not elected and their interest and engagement won’t be sustained if he does not live up to the promise of his candidacy once in office.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no doubt that Millennials have responded very positively to Senator Obama and his candidacy and that the Obama campaign has strongly targeted this generation. Millennials supported Obama overwhelmingly in this year's Democratic primaries and virtually all current general election surveys indicate that Millennials favor him over John McCain by at least a 2:1 margin. But the political attitudes and identifications of Millennials were clearly evident long before the Obama candidacy gained widespread visibility. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2007 indicated that Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by nearly a 2:1 ratio (52% vs. 30%). And, a study conducted at about the same time by the Millennial Strategy Program of communication research and consultation firm Frank N. Magid Associates showed that Millennials were the first generation since at least the GI Generation to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals than conservatives. All of this at least raises the possibility that the high level of Millennial political involvement is significantly based on the Democratic and liberal affinities of the generation and would be strong even without Obama's strong candidacy.
Gans makes it clear why he is sure that the political involvement of Millennials stems solely from their attachment to Barack Obama. He yearns for the “idealistic activism” of the 1950s and 1960s when, according to Gans, all of America shared a “different ethos” thanks to an educational system based “on John Dewey’s philosophy.” Since, in Gans' mind, the emerging Millennial Generation doesn’t share the liberal idealism of his own youth, it cannot possibly sustain its current level of political activity.
If only it were so, Curtis.
In fact, the ideological ferment of the late 1960s, led by half of the Baby Boomer Generation’s counter-cultural rebellion against authority, and the reaction against this social turmoil by the other half of Boomer Generation, produced the political gridlock that caused the very cynicism in the older portions of the electorate that Gans decries. Even his own expert on the Millennial Generation, William Damon, concedes that Millennials “are working hard, doing well enough in school, and staying out of trouble.” Indeed, America is enjoying far lower levels of socially deviant behavior, such as teen age pregnancy and crime, since these indicators began to soar during the adolescent years the Baby Boomer Generation with its disdain for social rules and convention.
But Gans' own words demonstrate the flaw in his thinking. The 1950s that he writes about so nostalgically was actually an era dominated by the behavior and ethos of the GI Generation, another “civic” generational archetype, just like Millennials, not by his beloved Boomers. That generation put FDR in the White House, brought about the New Deal approach to progressive government, defeated fascism in WWII, and voted at rates greater than those of previous generations. Their Democratic loyalty lasted a lifetime: the last remaining members of the GI Generation and the first sliver of Millennials provided the only pluralities for John Kerry over George W. Bush among any of the generational cohorts voting in 2004.
The previous falloff in voting by young people described by Gans in his diatribe is completely explained by the generational attitudes and behaviors of Boomers and Gen-Xers as they moved into and out of young adulthood. One generation, Boomers, initially turned out to vote spurred by admirable idealism and then often left the political process when they discovered in Gans’ telling phrase, that “their leaders showed feet of clay.” The other, Generation X, never bothered to participate in large numbers having been discouraged by the political gridlock Boomers had created. Now that Millennials make up the entire population of voters 26 and under in this election, you can be assured that they will not only vote at rates comparable to older voters, just like their GI Generation great-grandparents did, but they will also continue to vote heavily and participate vigorously in the nation’s political process for the rest of their lives.
They will do so, because unlike Curtis Gans and his ilk, which never were able to translate their idealism into action, Millennials are intent on working together to create a better America than the one Boomers have left them as an inheritance. Their confidence, political activism, and unity will begin to initiate that change on Election Day this year thanks to a record turnout of young voters. The 1.7 million vote plurality given to John Kerry by young voters in 2004 will grow to between 8 and 10 million for Barack Obama when this involved and unified generation goes to the polls on November 4. Only Curtis Gans and out of touch Boomers will be surprised.