During my time with the Obama campaign in 2008, I had the opportunity to work closely with the grass root organisation and volunteer movement which came to characterize the Illinois senator’s candidacy. From a UK-centric position, one differential between ‘our’ campaigning and ‘theirs’, became markedly clear. It wasn’t the almost holy significance of yard signs or the centrality of television debates (the chair, the pose, the tone, the make-up etc) that seemed so alien, but the genuine, and widespread activism of young people. Of course the UK has a strong tradition of student politics and an increasingly educated ‘new generation’, but the last General Election saw only 37% of voters aged 18-24 turn out to vote – that’s half as many as those over 65. That is, in the UK an OAP with potential health and transport difficulties is more likely to vote than a quick-footed youth at the peak of cognitive function. The political establishment in the UK seems to have caught a whiff of the potential for a youth based movement – one need only recall the groundbreaking admittance of the UK Youth Parliament to debate in the House of Commons last October, and more recently David Cameron’s dubious speech to undergraduates at the University of East London, flanked by imposter conservative activists, posing as ‘lay’ students.
But an exceptional recent study by the Pew Research Center potentially shatters this perceived wisdom of the young voter as ornamental, rather than instrumental, in American, and, by extension, world politics. Chapter 8 of the report (which is well worth reading in full) explores the political preferences and might of the so called ‘Millennial’ generation (those of us lucky enough to have escaped the seventies). I know it isn’t quite as alliteratively satisfying as ‘Baby Boomers’, or as mystique as ‘Generation X’, but Millennials will have to suffice, even if it does make us sound like a misjudged box of chocolates.
So what is the significance? After almost half a century of an uninspiring youth turnout in the US, 2008 marked the pinnacle of Millennial involvement, and it was good news for the Democrats. Not only were Millennials voting, they were voting blue. Whilst it is undeniable that Barack Obama’s personal appeal and relative youth must have had an impact on the 18-29 constituency, the support speaks also of an intersection of the policies of Democrats and the innate politico-cultural values of the Millennial population. The generation is the most liberal in America’s recent political history. Not only are they more likely to have a body piercing and less likely to own a gun, they are also the age-group most supportive of legalized gay marriage, for example. In this particular area, Millennials demonstrate an almost diametrical position to that of the general electorate, with 50% approval and only 36% disapproval of legalizing the status of same sex matrimony. A greater proportion of the under-30s watch CNN and MSNBC than their elders; they believe, on the whole, in the power of a bigger government to solve national problems, and they are distinctive for their liberal social attitudes in regards to the active acceptance of homosexuality, interracial couples and the equality of women, immigrants and minorities.
Not only do their general social attitudes correspond to Democratic positions, but the Obama campaign’s reliance upon social networking and online media resonated with a generation who are more likely to connect to wireless internet, use social networking multiple times per day, post a tweet, use cell phones only, send texts, and access their news online. A digital campaign of a Leftist party is then, more likely to reach out to the Millennial generation than a less digital campaign of a Rightist party. The larger question however remains: is this generation a stable foundation for continued Democratic support from young Americans? Or could the Millennial vote once again dictate the direction of Obama’s fate?
The Pew Report finds that since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, partisan support and political activism has slumped in Millennial behaviour. In the Massachusetts Senatorial race and the Gubnatorial race in Virginia – a state in which I had been overawed by youth activism – turnout was lamentable, even for these, more provincial, elections. Their support of the Democrats has fallen from 66% to 54%, whilst support for the Republicans has increased from 33% to 40% in what might be described as the statistical earthquake before the political Tsunami. Despite their previous allegiance, the generation is equally torn on whether Obama has delivered on a central campaign promise to eradicate the status quo of Washington ‘workings’, as is the electorate as a whole. Yet so far, Millennials are placing more blame on opponents and special interest groups for this failure than Obama himself. But this might change in a generation gripped by such short term fluctuation. Perhaps most significantly however, the Millennials – a group defined by their relatively minimal gun ownership – were the only group to show an overall disapproval of the Administration’s policy in Afghanistan. However the loss in support for Obama’s foreign policy may be restored once the troop drawdown is underway, which will take the country in line with the Millennial’s preference for a less aggressive military presence overseas.
In the run up to the mid terms later this year, the Millennials are still showing intensions of majority support for the Democrats, and their personal approval of Obama has not altered significantly. But also as a generation which is the most likely to boycott a product or service when dissatisfied, this might be a prescient concern for a government seeking re-election, which seems to be failing to deliver change to America at a satisfactory pace. The Millennial generation is politically mobile, and may play some part in knocking Obama off the pedestal which they helped to create. Or, even worse, their 2008 appearance may be remembered as an anomalous blip rather than a general resurgence of the youth base.