Friday, October 22, 2010

America's a Different Country

With less than two weeks to go in the unpredictable 2010 elections, many pundits have been left scratching their heads and admitting that they really have no idea how this election is going to turn out. Nate Silver, today’s most careful analyst of election statistics and forecasting, examined a variety of indicators and concluded that there were more closely contested and hard-to-predict congressional races this election than ever before. The biggest reason for this uncertainty is that America’s electorate is changing as fast as the country’s demographic and generational characteristics are, challenging old assumptions about how politics works in America.

In 1965 the nation was 89% white and 11% black, about the same as it had been during the previous century. Since then, high levels of Asian and Latin immigration have produced an America today which is 66% white and 33% “people of color,” a tripling of the minority population in only four decades. Remarkably, 10% of Americans are of Mexican descent and about 5% of the electorate speaks primarily Spanish. For the first time in US history a president of mixed race, who considers himself to be African-American, resides in the White House.

The second big demographic change is the emergence of the largest, most diverse generation in American history, one which will dominate the political and cultural life of 21st century America as much as the Boomers did in the late 20th century. The Millennial Generation, born from 1982-2003, is sometimes condescendingly referred to as the “youth vote,” but it should be more accurately recognized as the biggest and most important new voting cohort in America. There are about 95 million Millennials, about half of whom are now of voting age. One out of four eligible voters in 2012 will come from this generation and more than one out of three voters will be Millennials in 2020.

Every two years the percentage of non-whites, along with Millennials, in the American electorate is increasing. Non-whites will grow from 33% of the population today to 50% by 2042. As these populations grow, a new political reality will take hold in areas altered by their increased participation, especially in the Southwest and coastal areas of the country. The power of these population shifts to upend conventional political wisdom was demonstrated by Barack Obama’s victories over heavily favored establishment candidates in both the Democratic primary and the general election in 2008.

These demographic transformations are changing the political loyalties and beliefs of the American electorate. Democrats now have their largest lead in national party identification since the early 1960s. In a recent Pew survey, only 15% of Americans claimed to be completely unaffiliated independent voters, while about half (48%) identify with the Democratic Party and 37% with the Republican Party. By contrast, in 1994, the last time in which a newly elected Democratic president faced a midterm election against an aroused GOP, the two parties were tied in party identification at 44% each. This Democratic advantage is due in large part to Millennials and Hispanics who identify as Democrats by a 2:1 margin over Republicans.

Survey data also shows that most Americans continue to favor using government to address their economic concerns and societal challenges. This summer, in a survey conducted for the progressive think tank, NDN, a clear majority (54% vs. 31%) of Americans favored a government that actively tries to solve societal and economic problems rather than one that takes a hands-off approach--numbers virtually unchanged since Barack Obama’s inauguration. More recently, only 29% of those surveyed this fall told Pew they wanted all of the Bush-era tax cuts to remain in place, while a majority (57%) preferred either that those on the wealthy should be allowed to expire or that all of the Bush tax cuts should end. Forty percent of adults told an Associated Press survey they didn’t think the new health care law went far enough, while only 20% felt the federal government shouldn’t be involved in healthcare at all. These pro-government attitudes are likely to grow as more and more Millennials enter the electorate. By a 60% to 36% margin the generation favors a bigger government providing more services over a smaller government providing fewer services.

Rather than being surprised every two years by the changing politics of a nation altered by a rapidly changing demography, pundits would be wiser to anticipate that American politics is going to keep changing and evolving every two years, and will never again look like the politics of the 20th century. In the shorter run, the operative question in this year’s midterm elections is the extent to which the major components of the 21st century American electorate make their presence felt at the polls in November. President Obama, who is concentrating his final campaigning efforts on college campuses and minority neighborhoods, clearly recognizes the challenge—but also the rare opportunity—presented by the 21st century electorate. His success in energizing these newest members of the Democratic Party’s base will determine the still uncertain outcome of the midterm elections. But the longer term direction of American politics will clearly continue to be driven by the demographic and generational changes now sweeping the country.

Monday, October 4, 2010

If Millennials vote, Dems Win

The Millennial Generation is positioned to be a decisive force this November. Recent surveys of Millennials conducted in the battleground states of Colorado and Florida for the New Policy Institute (NPI) by market research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, provide a revealing portrait of the political loyalties and attitudes of young voters. In both states, a majority of Millennials continue to identify as Democrats, most call themselves liberal or progressive, and most hold favorable attitudes toward Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (and unfavorable attitudes toward the Republican Party and Tea Party movement).If Millennials vote as overwhelmingly Democratic this year as they appear likely to do, they could prove to be the crucial factor in an election that appears to be evenly divided according to the most recent polling.
The results of the NPI survey are corroborated nationally in an early September Pew Research Center survey. That poll gives the Democrats a greater than 2:1 (51% vs. 22%) party ID advantage over the GOP among Millennials. By contrast, the two parties are almost virtually tied in party ID among all older generations (43% Democrat vs. 40% Republican).

Just as important, Millennials hold solidly progressive positions on a range of key issues:
· A solid plurality of them (45%) favors the healthcare reform law passed by Congress and signed by the president in February. An additional 14 percent want to see how the new law works in practice before attempting to change or repeal it. Only 18 percent of Millennials favor repealing it outright. By contrast, older generations are almost evenly divided on this issue (43% supporting the healthcare reform legislation and 35% favoring immediate repeal of the new law).
· Two-thirds of Millennials (67%) oppose modifying the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. In contrast, a majority of those in older generations (51%) favor changing the Constitution for this purpose.
· A plurality of Millennials (34%) would prefer to let all of the Bush 2001 tax cuts to expire. An additional 26% favor letting the tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250 thousand per year, but remain in place for other Americans. Less than one-quarter (23%) believe that all of the tax cuts should be extended. On the other hand, among older Americans, only one-quarter (26%) favor ending of all the tax cuts, while a plurality (30%) want all of them to remain in force.

All of this bodes well for the long-term future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Voting behavior research dating back to the 1950s demonstrates that once political identifications and attitudes are formed in early adulthood, they tend to solidify and remain constant for a lifetime. The Millennial Generation, along with other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition, has the potential to underpin another era of Democratic and progressive dominance, particularly as the Millennial share of the electorate increases from the 17 percent that it was in 2008, to the 24 percent that it will be when President Obama runs for reelection in 2012, and the 36 percent in will comprise in 2020 when the youngest Millennials become eligible to vote.
But the key to Democratic victories in the short term requires Millennials voting in 2010 at a level proportionate to their contribution to the electorate in 2006 and 2008.
Recent polling suggests that is by no means certain. Part of the problem is structural: a June NDN survey indicated that only 60 percent of Millennials, as compared with 83 percent of older generations, were registered to vote.
However, a bigger concern is attitudinal: Millennials, like other components of the Democratic coalition, are not as inspired by or involved in politics as they were in both 2006 and 2008. The June NDN poll indicated that only 44 percent of Millennials in contrast to 64 percent of other generations said they were “absolutely certain” to vote this fall. The numbers were a bit better three months later in both Florida (48%) and Colorado (56%), but they were undoubtedly well below that of older voters in those states. Of greater concern, however, the June NDN survey indicates that only a third of Millennials (33%), as compared to about half of other Americans (47%), placed great importance on the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections. In both Colorado (31%) and Florida (32%), as in the nation overall, only a third of Millennials perceived the election to be very important.

The Obama administration and the Democratic Party clearly recognize the crucial importance of the Millennial Generation. The president has scheduled a series of rallies at college campuses across the country, most recently at the University of Wisconsin, to remind Millennials of all that is at stake this fall. The Democratic National Committee has earmarked $50 million to bring Millennials, and other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition, to the polls. The operative question in the 2010 midterm election is whether these efforts will prove to be timely and effective enough to activate the Democratic majority this November.