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Coming Soon to Decide an Election Near You...the Millennials

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The Millennial Generation is poised to play a decisive role in the election of Barack Obama on November 4. An October 30 ABC News/Washington Post national poll gave Barack Obama an eight-point advantage over John McCain (52% vs. 44%). Among young voters in the ABC sample Obama continued to enjoy the nearly 2:1 advantage he has held throughout the campaign (64% vs. 33%). Among all older voters, the race is far closer (50% vs. 46% in favor of Obama).

Just how big an advantage this proves to be for the Obama campaign depends on how many Millennials actually cast their ballots in the election. In 2004, about half of eligible young people turned out to vote; they favored John Kerry by a relatively narrow 55% vs. 45% margin. This gave Kerry about a 1.7 million vote plurality among young voters, a lead that was more than wiped out by George W. Bush's lead among older generations -- Silents like John McCain and Joe Biden, Baby Boomers like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Gen Xers like Sarah Palin. This year, the sheer size and overwhelming unity of Millennials is likely to provide Barack Obama with a much larger advantage.

Even if Millennials vote at only the same rate that young people did in 2004, Obama will receive about a six million vote plurality from them. Given the political interest and high voter turnout that Millennials showed in the presidential primaries earlier this year, it seems likely that their turnout on Tuesday will be higher than that of young voters four years ago. If 55 percent of Millennials go to the polls, Obama's plurality among them will grow to about seven million. And, if Millennials vote at the same 60 percent rate that older generations do, Obama's national plurality from young voters will be almost eight million. Given that George W. Bush beat John Kerry by only a little more than three million votes, the Millennial margins Obama is likely to enjoy should prove to be the decisive factor in this year's election.

While it was painful for Democrats to experience at the time, the inter-generational contest between Barack Obama, with his solid support among Millennials, and Hillary Clinton, with her dedicated cadre of Boomer women, proved to be a great advantage to the Democratic ticket in the general election. Once Senator Clinton graciously and enthusiastically endorsed Obama at the convention, the stage was set for a campaign that could unite the generations in November. By contrast, John McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin, a classic Gen X candidate for Vice President, did irreparable damage to his candidacy among Millennials. Like her generation, Palin's risk-taking style is confrontational and entrepreneurial with little tolerance for government activism. By contrast, Millennials are focused on solutions that involve the whole group and use government as an instrument to bring people together on behalf of the greater good. Millennials were the first generation to register their disapproval of Palin, and her negatives among this key constituency have continued to climb throughout the campaign. Millennials are a generation of "liberal interventionists" in the economy, "activist multilateralists" in foreign affairs, and "tolerant non-meddlers" on social issues -- all things the McCain/Palin ticket is not.

But, as we forecast in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, what the Millennials do on November 4, 2008 is going to be only one important step in what this generation will accomplish over the next four decades. The Millennial Generation is a civic generation and, like their GI Generation great grandparents, America's last civic generation, Millennials will lead a makeover of American politics. This realignment will make the Democratic Party the dominant force in U.S. politics and will turn the country away from the divisive social issues and gridlock of the past forty years to a win-win approach that confronts and actually resolves fundamental economic and foreign policy matters. Welcome to the Millennial Era.

Cross-posted on the NDN blog.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, Fellows at NDN, are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008).

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