It's the latest hot political trend identified by the media in 2012. According to an article recently published on the front page of the New York Times, the youngest Americans, those just entering the electorate, have become disillusioned with President Obama. This "post-millennial" generation is supposedly more conservative and more opposed to activist government than the "millennial generation" that preceded them, providing an opening for Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates to win them over to their side.
Other than anecdotes based on interviews with a handful of members of the post-millennial generation, the main evidence cited in the Times story for this trend was an online survey of young Americans conducted earlier this year by the Harvard Institute of Politics. That sounds impressive but there are reasons to be skeptical about the findings from the Harvard survey. Evidence from other recent surveys, including the 2010 National Exit Poll, seems to contradict the conclusion that members of the post-millennial generation are more conservative and less supportive of the president than their millennial brethren.
It is difficult to find public opinion surveys that separate results for 18 to 24 year-olds from those for 25-29 year-olds. The Gallup tracking poll, for example, only provides weekly results on presidential approval and presidential candidate choice for 18-29 year-olds. Gallup's most recent compilation of results for presidential candidate choice over the three weeks from June 4 through June 24 showed Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney by 56 percent to 33 percent among registered voters under the age of 30 while trailing Romney by 46 percent to 45 percent among all registered voters.
Obama's 23 point margin over Mitt Romney among registered voters under the age of 30 was somewhat smaller than his 32 point margin over John McCain in the 2008 National Exit Poll. But the decline in support for Mr. Obama was very similar to that in other age groups. There is no evidence here that Obama has lost support disproportionately among younger voters.
According to the Gallup tracking poll, Americans under the age of 30 were less certain about voting than older Americans but that is nothing new. Despite the enthusiasm of many young people for Mr. Obama in 2008, Americans under the age of 30 turned out at a lower rate than any other age group. Americans under the age of 30 made up about the same proportion of voters in 2008 as in 2004 and there is no clear evidence that younger Americans are likely to comprise a smaller proportion of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008.
Evidence from a March, 2012 Gallup poll also raises doubts about the claim that members of the post-millennial generation are more conservative and less supportive of President Obama than members of the millennial generation. In this survey, 60 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds approved of the president's performance compared with 50 percent of 25 to 29 year-olds and 35 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds described themselves as conservative compared with 49 percent of 25 to 29 year-olds.
But while the evidence from this Gallup poll appears to contradict the claim that post-millennials are more conservative and less supportive of the president than millennials, it is based on a rather small number of respondents in each age group. For a much larger sample of millennial and post-millennial voters, we can turn to the 2010 National Exit Poll. If post-millennials have become disillusioned with President Obama since 2008, the signs of that certainly should have been evident in the 2010 midterm election in which Democrats suffered heavy losses.
However, the evidence from the 2010 NEP shows very clearly that post-millennials were more positive about the President, more liberal, more supportive of activist government, more opposed to repeal of health care reform, and more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates than millennials. And both post-millennials and millennials were much more positive about thepPresident, much more liberal, much more supportive of activist government, much more opposed to repeal of health care reform and much more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates than voters over the age of 30.
For example, 60 percent of post-millennials wanted government to do more to solve the country's problems compared with 53 percent of millennials and 38 percent of other voters; 65 percent of post-millennials approved of President Obama's job performance compared with 60 percent of millennials and 42 percent of other voters; and 59 percent of post-millennials voted for a Democratic House candidate compared with 55 percent of millennials and 45 percent of other voters.
Conclusion: Much Ado About Nothing?
Stories of dramatic shifts in voter behavior from one election to the next make for exciting news copy. But claims about large swings in voter attitudes should generally be treated skeptically, especially when they are based on very limited evidence. In this case, the story of post-millennial voters becoming increasingly conservative and open to voting for Republican candidates clearly deserves to be taken with a large grain of salt especially since other evidence appears to directly contradict these conclusions.