The “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service released this week by the Harvard Institute of Politics seems to send a simple, direct image: Democrats, you have lost the support of millennials.
But the tragedy of this poll is that it fails to tackle a fundamental question: Why? For that reason, it fails to paint an accurate picture of the challenges millennials face that underlie their political beliefs.
The biggest highlight of the Harvard survey is the reversal of Democrat’s strong lead in the last election cycle. “In 2010…according to exit polls, Americans age 18 to 29 favored Democrats by 58 percent to 42 percent, a 16-point margin. Four years later…the IOP survey finds that likely young voters prefer Republican control of the Congress by a slim four-point margin of 51 to 47 percent.”
President Obama, according to this survey, also took a huge hit. “President Obama’s job approval rating has dropped to 43 percent, the second-lowest measured by Harvard’s IOP since he took office.”
But to understand what millennials truly want, let’s take a look at facts about the reality that they face.
According to the Center for American Progress’ “50 Years After LBJ’s War on Poverty” report released in January, millennials disproportionately are suffering financially. Thirty-eight percent of millennials are personally or have members of the immediate family falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, compared to a national average of only 20 percent. Forty-four percent of millennials are personally or have members of the immediate family falling behind on gas, electric, or phone bills, compared to an average of 25 percent. Whether it’s medical care due to high costs or trouble paying a credit card balance, millennials are suffering at far higher rates than the national averages.
Based on statistics from the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau, 5.8 million young adults are neither working nor in school. This segment of 18-34-year-olds are experiencing sustained high rates of unemployment, persisting in double-digits for the last 70 consecutive months. Among millennials, the younger segment, 16-24, suffer even more: Unemployment rates are more than twice the national average, at 15 percent versus an average for the full working population of around 7 percent.
The already grim economic outlooks are compounded by the reality of high student loans. Nearly half of millennials worry about being able to pay off student loan debt.
Beyond their realities, millennials show strong support for such programs as emergency unemployment benefits, and Medicare and Medicaid. Sixty percent of millennials support unemployment benefits, with 28 percent believing the federal government should increase spending on the program, according to a January YouGov poll. The same poll reveals that 61 percent of millennials view Medicare and Medicaid favorably.
The Harvard IOP poll asked the wrong questions. Instead of trying to gauge party image and support, we should be focusing on what issues move the millennials, and where they stand on these issues.
If we are to ask issues-based survey questions, more than likely, the result would show that millennials support the progressive economic policies in the Democratic party agenda.
On Thursday the Youth Engagement Project issued a rebuttal to the Harvard study that pointed to a finding in the study that got lost in the mainstream media coverage. “Here is what the Harvard poll actually says,” wrote Alexandra Acker-Lyons of the Youth Engagement Project. “Millennial voters favor a Democratic Congress 50%-43 percent and self-identify as Democrats by +11 [11 percentage points more than Republican]. Only millennials who said they were ‘definitely voting’ in 2014 favored electing Republicans over Democrats, 51 percent-47 percent.
“The poll’s findings do not support the media narrative that millennials have become Republicans – they haven’t. Only likely youth voters favor Republicans. This is not without reason as likely youth voters are more likely to be white and conservative, which – as you might expect – does not reflect the youth voter overall.”
The Youth Engagement Project’s own poll with Project New America and Harstad Strategic Research concluded that roughly three-quarters of the millennials who voted for President Obama in 2012 would support Democratic Party control of Congress in 2014, while only 12 percent prefer Republican control. These voters could tip the scales for Democrats on Tuesday – if they show up at the polls.
But for that to happen, Democrats have to effectively communicate what they will do to address the economic concerns of millennials. With only five days left in this election cycle, time is counting down for these candidates to really get their messages across. It’s not enough to simply display the shell of “being a Democrat.”
For more detailed findings on the views of millennials and other segments of the electorate, go to PopulistMajority.org.