Friday, April 3, 2009

A New Generation Shapes a New Era

During the past couple of weeks the Washington media and political establishment have focused on such matters of crucial and lasting importance as President Barack Obama's possible "overexposure," whether he showed suitable affect by chuckling during a TV interview in a time of severe economic difficulty, and just when he became angry about the bonuses received by AIG executives. To be fair, the focus on trivialities is bipartisan. We have also been treated to several days of discussion about whether conservatives Laura Ingram and Ann Coulter or moderate Meaghan McCain have the appropriate body shape for Republican women.
Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, America's demography is steadily and quietly changing in a way that will fundamentally reshape the country for decades to come. A new generation, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003), is coming of age to makeover or realign U.S. politics. The approximately 95 million Millennials compromise the largest American generation in history. There are now around 17 million more Millennials alive than there are Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), the previously largest generation, and 27 million more Millennials than members of Generation X (born 1965-1981), the relatively small generation between the Boomers and Millennials.
While about 4.5 million Millennials have been reaching voting age every year since 2000, the generation didn't enter the electorate in large enough numbers to make a real difference until 2008. And make a difference it did. Millennials were decisive in securing the Democratic presidential nomination for Barack Obama. In November, Millennials supported Obama by a greater than 2:1 margin over John McCain, accounting for 80-percent of his popular vote margin and turning what would have been a squeaker into a decisive victory.
But the 2008 election was barely the tip of the Millennial iceberg. Important as they were a year ago, not even half (41%) of Millennials were eligible to vote and they accounted for less than a fifth (17%) of the voting age population in 2008. A bare majority of Millennials will be eligible in 2010. Close to two-thirds of them (61%), representing a quarter of the electorate will be able to vote when President Obama runs for reelection in 2012. By 2016, eight in ten Millennials will be eligible to vote and they will comprise 30-percent of the electorate. In 2020, when virtually all Millennials will be old enough to vote, they will account for more than a third of the electorate (36%). With numbers like these, the Millennial Generation will be in position to dominate U.S. elections and politics for decades to come.
However, the sheer size of the Millennial Generation is only part of the equation. If it were as sharply divided in politics as America's last large generation, the Baby Boomers, the potential impact of the Millennial Generation would be greatly minimized. But, Millennials are anything but divided.
Democrats now hold nearly a 2:1 edge in party identification over Republicans (55% vs. 30%) among Millennials. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Democratic proclivities of Millennials have in any way lessened since the inauguration of Barack Obama. The latest Daily Kos tracking survey indicates that clear majorities of Millennials have favorable opinions of Barack Obama (80%) and the Democratic Party (62%). By contrast, only 10-percent of them have a positive opinion of the GOP. Decades of voting behavior and public opinion research tell us that once identifications and attitudes like these are formed in early adulthood, they almost invariably remain constant throughout the lives of individuals and generations.
So while Washington continues to focus on the gotcha trivia of a past era, the demographic tectonic plates that underlie, shape and define American politics are shifting. Perhaps, with luck, the inside-the-Beltway political community will someday notice the change that's going on around it. But, if history is any guide, it will likely take the arrival of a new generation in the corridors of power to ratify in Washington the transformation that is sweeping across the rest of America.