Young Voters Turn America Left


Nothing made Barack Obama's victory potentially more historically significant than his overwhelming support from millennial voters, members of the generation born in or after 1982. Obama won voters under 30 by roughly two-to-one, compared with barely half for John Kerry, making some Democrats positively giddy with the prospect of long-term domination of American politics. Most of these voters also stayed with the Democrats down ticket, enhancing the mass slaughter of GOP lambs across the country.

Whether the Democrats keep this edge, however, depends not so much on the new president's personal appeal, but on whether he and his party can deliver economically for workers entering a very tough economy. This will become increasingly critical as millennial voters age and begin focusing less on symbolism and more on how the new regime has worked for them in terms of income and upward mobility.

The poor economy impacts young voters more than commonly believed. Even before the recession kicked in, a 2006 survey by the Center for American Progress found 15- to 25-year-olds twice as likely to view the economy as the main issue than the rest of population. When they came out to vote earlier this month, young voters had little reason to support continued Republican rule. Even in the expansionary period earlier in this decade, the incomes of younger workers continued to fall, in part because they were too young to enjoy gains from either the stock or housing bubbles.

More ominously, since 2000, these reverses have been shared even by those with college educations--the very group that, outside of the poor and African-Americans, most supported Obama. They voted for him at a time when, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, half of all companies planned to cut the number of new graduates hired from the previous year.

In contrast to previous generations, millennials are finding that a four-year degree no longer insulates them from declining earnings or the specter of under-employment. This may be in part because college-educated workers today face unprecedented competition from skilled labor in other countries, particularly in the developing world.

Reversing this trend for younger workers may well prove the greatest challenge and opportunity for the new administration. If the millennials stick with President Obama and the Democrats, we indeed could witness a long-term shift toward the left in American politics.

Certainly, the initial indications are positive. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais point out in their groundbreaking book Millennial Makeover, younger voters were attracted to the egalitarian and "civic" orientation of the Obama campaign. They first rejected the individualist, combative baby-boomer ethos represented by Hillary Clinton, who did very poorly among younger voters. Later they also turned against the harsh tone of the McCain campaign and its embrace of both Cold War rhetoric and social conservatism.

However, how long will the millennials' leftward tilt last? It all depends on whether the new administration fixes the economy and creates opportunities for the millennials who will be flooding the workforce in the coming years.

A generation's early exposure to politics and politicians can shape their perspective for decades. The politics of the generation that came to age during the 1930s, for example, reflected their experience first with the New Deal and then with Democratic leadership during the Second World War.

Although conservative ideologues can argue incessantly that Franklin Roosevelt's policies prolonged the Great Depression, the fact remains that most Americans supported Roosevelt through the entire period. More importantly, after the great stimulus of the Second World War, large parts of an entire generation shared in one of the greatest periods of prosperity in global history.

Not only did they enjoy a steady increase in real incomes, but also the average person's access to homeownership and college education expanded at an unprecedented rate. In addition, critically, the economy's expansion took place without increasing the gap between the rich and everyone else, unlike the most recent expansions.

Economists can bicker all they want, but most people believed that the New Deal and the Democrats delivered. This won them the loyalty of a generation that kept them as the majority party well into the 1960s.

If President Obama and the Democrats can deliver similarly prolonged economic growth with a strong egalitarian distribution, the millennials would seem destined to constitute the bulwark of a quasi-permanent new majority. Nothing that the Republicans could do with cultural issues or security could offset this phenomenon. Indeed, millennial positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion suggest that contemplating a continuation of the "culture wars" could be self-defeating.

This is not the only possible scenario. In the 1960s and 1970s, many baby boomers also embraced liberal politics, largely for cultural reasons and in opposition to the Vietnam War. However, the dismal economic failures of the Carter years, and the apparent cluelessness of the Democratic Congress in finding ways to compete in a changing world economy, ultimately drove many boomers to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. This shift allowed the GOP to dominate American politics for a quarter century.

For the new president, the critical millennial challenge will be to create a vibrant, productive economy that can expand opportunities for new workers, including those with college degrees. Style and symbolism will seduce young people only for so long; ultimately, they will also want jobs, income and the chance to live a decent middle-class life.

Everything depends on what the Democrats now do. Few of the forces closest to the new president--the gentry liberals, the legal establishment, the green lobby and big city mayors--have a track record of creating widespread new employment and expanding opportunity.

In addition, much of the leadership of the congressional party, based in urban and elite locales, favors positions that might constrain broad-based growth.

A policy of raising taxes on entrepreneurs (as opposed to the accumulated wealth of the gentry class), increased regulation on small businesses and spending on an ever-expanding public sector bureaucracy does not bode well for a strong economic resurgence.

It is true that younger voters, as a recent Center for American Progress report suggested, support higher taxes and expanded government as the preferred way to solve social ills. But as they age, some of those very millennials will be the ones paying the bills for their good intentions. They will have to try establishing businesses in a harsh regulatory climate. This could turn even some now fervent Obamaphiles into retro-Reaganites.

However, if the new president proves as clever at policy as at politics, and sparks a new growth economy, all this could prove moot. With a grateful new generation behind him, Obama could help the Democrats achieve a period of predominance every bit as extended as the one shaped by Franklin Roosevelt three-quarters of a century ago.

It all boils down to whether the senator can meet the millennial challenge not only this year but also in the years ahead.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.