At first glance, a poll released this week by USA Today and Rock the Vote, done by Ipsos, seems to confound our narrative that a majority of millennials identify more with progressives than conservatives. In fact, when asked that question point-blank when it comes to economic policy, 38 percent of respondents in the poll identified as conservative to some degree, while 34 percent identified as liberal.
But there are several signs in the poll that a progressive policy agenda would win much broader support among millennials than what would be indicated by how they identified themselves ideologically. (See our Populist Majority website for how other polls have measured national support for progressive policies.)
When the poll asked specific policy questions, a majority of the respondents – a sample of more than 1,100 adults between the ages of 18 and 34 – sided most of the time with positions that at least lean toward positions in our Populism 2015 Platform for People and the Planet.
Eighty percent, for example, agreed with the statement that "American should transition to mostly clean or renewable energy by 2030." Almost that same percentage supported regulation to protect air and water (which would be a no-brainer position if it were not for leading Republican presidential candidates campaigning on either abolishing or severely weakening the Environmental Protection Agency and the laws it enforces). Almost 60 percent support the idea of government investing more heavily in buses and rail.
The poll also ranks millennials as conservative on security and foreign policy issues, but they part from the Republican presidential candidates on their willingness to see the U.S. accept refugees from Syria and other conflict sites (53 percent agree) and whether the U.S, should focus on alleviating poverty as part of its strategy to combat terrorism (52 percent agree).
Poll respondents solidly agreed with the stances taken by Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters on basic questions of police violence, accountability and sentencing reform for nonviolent offenders. But the question that received the most agreement was on whether there would be a background check for all gun purchases in the United States, with 82 percent saying yes. (Fifty-eight percent agreed that "stricter gun laws would help prevent gun violence.")
It is no wonder, then, that when self-identified Democrats and independents in this group was asked by pollsters who they would vote for as president, 46 percent said they would vote for Bernie Sanders, 35 percent said Hillary Clinton and 5 percent said Martin O'Malley. For Republicans and independents, 26 percent said they would vote for Donald Trump and 11 percent said Ben Carson. Ted Cruz, now running first or second in most other Republican polls, came in fifth with 8 percent in this millennial poll, behind Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Another clue that millennials may not be as conservative as they might lead pollsters to believe is in what they chose as "the most important issues for the next President of the United States." A suite of economic issues related to jobs, wages and family leave ranked first at 35 percent; ranking third below foreign policy and security was "education, college affordability and student debt" at 28 percent.
This poll did not probe further on whether respondents agreed with Republican presidential candidates who oppose an increase in the minimum wage – or who believe, as Donald Trump infamously stated, “our wages are too high" – or who are against federal efforts to make college affordable to everyone. But it is clear that there is not a large audience among millennials for the Republican candidate preoccupations with immigration, the budget deficit or tax cuts. And it's doubtful that their rating of jobs and wages, and college affordability, as top issues reflects support for how Republican candidates have positioned themselves on those issues.
It is worth stating the obvious: Millennials are not monolithic. It is true, as USA Today wrote in its coverage, that many consider themselves "more pragmatic than ideological." A significant share of this group is waiting to be persuaded – and is open to being persuaded – that their vote will make a difference, and that their vote for progressive candidates and policies will make their lives better. But that is a challenge that progressives are well equipped to successfully take on.