THE BLOG

Lessons from the Heartland

05/15/2015 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

Co-authored with David Walker

Although Indiana is far removed from battleground lists of either party, recent events there and their impact should command the attention of national political operatives on both sides.

Three months ago, Indiana Governor Mike Pence stood among the most popular executives in the country. In a February 2015 survey released by the Indiana Association of Realtors, Pence boasted a 62 percent approval rating. Other contemporary surveys showed similar results. However, two more recent, independently conducted surveys show Pence struggling with mixed job ratings and below 50 percent of the vote in trial heats when paired against Democrat John Gregg. In a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Human Rights Campaign survey conducted among likely voters between April 7-9 left Pence at just 43 percent positive ("excellent" or "good") job rating, and he managed only 47 percent of the vote against Gregg. A Howey Politics Indiana registered voter survey taken a few days later (April 12-14) by Bellwether Research & Consulting also showed Pence underwater (45 percent approve, 46 percent disapprove of his job performance), and he reaching just 43 percent of the vote share against Gregg (37 percent for the Democrat).

Neither are impressive results for an incumbent Republican in a red state Romney won by 10 points.

Between the February survey's findings and the current findings, Governor Pence privately signed a discriminatory "religious freedom" bill (SB 101), setting off a wave of controversy in the state while it was hosting the NCAA Basketball Championship, sparking an open-revolt in the Indiana business community and ultimately leading to a partial retreat by the Pence administration. Indiana voters do not support this law--a 62 percent majority believe businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to someone because of their sexual or gender identity for religious reasons in the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey--and judged the Governor's actions on this issue harshly--a 53 percent majority say these events left them with an unfavorable impression of Pence. Moreover, a striking 75 percent of Indiana voters describe these events as bad for Indiana's businesses and economy.

So what does Indiana voters' opposition to this law have to do with national politics? Plenty if we consider which groups of voters are "in play" in the 2016 cycle.

Republican political operatives can analyze Census and voter data as well as Democrats. Republicans recognize that they cannot win a national election without becoming more competitive among ascendant sectors of the American population: younger voters, unmarried women, and people of color. And, there are signs that the Democratic hold on some of these groups is weakening. By any measure, young people have not fared well economically in the last seven years. The slow pace of economic growth produced significant drops in youth turnout--there were two million fewer voters under 30 in the 2012 election compared to 2008--and more competitive political outcomes.

After winning 54 percent of white millennials in 2008, Democrats lost these voters in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Democrats still won the overall vote among voters under 30 in these elections because of this generation's racial diversity. In a recently released survey by Harvard University, only 55 percent of all millennial voters preferred a Democrat in the White House, a far cry from the 67 percent Obama won in 2008.

This brings us back to Indiana: much of the damage done to Governor Pence emerges from this same cohort of voters. Pence draws a 67 percent negative job rating among voters under the age of 40 and a 29 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable personal appeal score. A 71 percent majority of younger voters believe businesses should not have the right to discriminate, and a 64 percent majority describes the Governor's conduct during this controversy in unfavorable terms.

The Governor's support for LGBT discrimination tanked his standing among the same group of voters that the Republicans need nationally to improve their margin if they are to win the White House. Young white millennials are conflicted in 2016. They are torn between finding an alternative to an economic status quo that cannot seem to find a place for them and an inability to embrace a party whose support for LGBT discrimination in Indiana, Arkansas, and other states, opposition to marriage equality, and conservative views on a number of other key social issues (immigration, reproductive choice, the environment, among others) violates their core generational values.

How these voters ultimately resolve that conflict will play a major role in the outcome 20 months from now.

Anna Greenberg is a Senior Vice President and David Walker is a Vice President at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and conducts research for the Human Rights Campaign.