05/20/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Right's Millennial Dilemma in 2014 and Beyond

Co-authored by Paul Harstad and Michael Kulisheck of Harstad Strategic Research and Alexandra Acker-Lyons of the Youth Engagement Fund.

Every generation experiences fundamental shifts, culturally, politically and socially from its predecessors. But we believe the Millennial generation (18-31 year-olds for the purposes of this post) has been especially marked by upheaval and the pace of change.

Think for a moment about what has happened as this generation has grown up. One of their earliest memories of significance beyond the safety and familiarity of their own backyards was 9/11. Younger Millennials, often described as "digital natives," think of landlines the way baby boomers think of telephone party lines. Their technological sophistication and expectations of technology are changing by the month if not quicker. Culturally they are color-blind when it comes to ethnicity and sexual orientation is an equally irrelevant distinction. In fact, it is shocking to them that laws would discriminate against anyone due to race, sexual orientation, or gender. Their view of government is somewhat conflicted, and two of their most urgent issues of concern are climate change and gun violence, both in which they feel personally invested and not just from an abstract policy perspective.

Beltway elites simply don't understand Millennials. They nurture a dismissive conventional wisdom that suggests conservatives can ignore their well-documented problems with young voters because they vote less frequently than the GOP's older, whiter, more conservative base. However, according to new data released last week by Harstad Strategic Research on behalf of the Youth Engagement Fund and Project New America, Millennial voters may dramatically shape the 2014 election -- just as they did in 2008 and 2012. The key contrast is with the 2010 conservative landslide, where only 24 percent of all registered Millennials cast a ballot. In the four years since, the number of Millennials registered to vote has nearly doubled to more than 37 million, with millions more on track to register by November.

According to the very same research, 28 percent of all young people are likely to vote in November. Looking just at Millennials who supported President Obama in 2012, 30 percent will likely vote and another 20 percent will be turnout targets. Those percentages may seem small, but when you consider the number of registered young voters -- some 40 million -- will be nearly double that of registered young voters in 2010, it is no exaggeration to suggest Millennials will be the deciding factor in dozens of hotly contested races this fall.

Our survey has given us a deeper understanding of Millennials' values, the issues they care most about in American political life, how they consume media, and who they trust. This body of work allowed us to look at different age cohorts, socio-economic factors and geographic differences. Our goal was two-fold: first, to understand Millennials in order to design strategies that will engage them in the electoral process which is imperative to keep our democracy healthy and second, to guide progressive institutions and candidates in their understanding of this critical community.

In short, we find that Democrats have great potential among Millennials this November and in the 2016 election for president. Our survey of more than two thousand Millennials finds overwhelming support for a host of progressive policy prescriptions as well as significant commitment to core progressive values. In the right campaign, there is broad issue and values synergy between Democrats and Millennials that can be converted into votes.

The challenge facing Democrats in 2014 is how to use these shared issue stands and values to communicate and motivate Millennials. To turnout Millennials, Democrats must sharpen the contrast between candidates and clarify the policy consequences facing young Americans at the ballot box this November when they choose between Democrats and Republicans.

Yes, Millennials share progressive values and are more likely to support Democratic candidates. But what good are such truths if these critical young voters stay home on Election Day?

Progressive Values

2014-05-20-PollSlide1.pngMillennials say that progressive values are important given the challenges we face as a country. In fact, a lopsided 69 percent of Millennials say that the progressive values of equality, opportunity, and fairness are important values these days. At the same time, only 43 percent of Millennials say more conservative values like personal responsibility and accountability are most important for America now.

Democratic plans and explanations for moving America forward naturally build on values like equality, fairness, and opportunity. Whether talking about education, jobs, or fiscal issues, Democrats naturally weave talk of these values through their public narratives. Even on issues such as outsourcing jobs, untapped industrial carbon pollution, and excessive tax loopholes for the rich and big corporations, Democrats can easily embed responsibility and accountability into their messages.

The preference of Millennials for progressive values put Republicans at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to reaching these young Americans. If honestly appraised, even the most conservative message guru would admit the Republican agenda is not easily - or convincingly - explained in terms of equality, fairness, or even broad-based opportunity. Indeed, on most policies, the GOP priorities are at odds with all five of these top values.

Progressive Issues

2014-05-20-PollSlide2.pngOn issue after issue, Millennials are decidedly progressive. This issues-based advantage extends across party identification to include Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents. For Democrats to capitalize on these lopsided issue advantages among Millennials, they must first explain the differences between the parties and educate young people about the detrimental real-world implications of Republican policy stands:

  • Millennials overwhelmingly favor Democratic stands on economic issues like equal pay for women, student loan debt rates, tax fairness, and raising the minimum wage. Republicans have voted time and again against these issues, and in the process they have put themselves at odds with large swaths of Millennials.
  • On forward looking and future-oriented issues like public education, climate change, and corporate money in campaigns, Millennials also exhibit clear preferences for Democratic stands. Republicans across the country are clearly out-of-step with Millennials on these issues. Whereas Millennials want to see action on the issues that will define our times, Republicans largely deny the scientific reality of climate change, actively promote the involvement of big corporations in elections, and undermine our public schools.
  • Millennials are out front leading the nation on social issues like gun safety, marriage equality, and reproductive freedom. Their progressive stands on these issues sets them apart from Republicans who are unabashed advocates for reactionary -- and in some cases hurtful -- policy positions on these issues.

    In fact, a stunning 93 percent of Millennials favor at least one of these three progressive social issues (gun background checks, marriage equality, and reproductive freedom), 75 percent favor at least two, and a 51 percent majority of Millennials favor all three. While Democrats are standing with Millennials on these social issues, the official Republican position is to oppose all three -- a position held by only 7 percent of Millennials.

The reality is that many Millennials don't know their issue preferences and priorities actually align closely with Democrats. With the right messaging and outreach, Democrats can convert Millennials from passive supporters into active voters.

Millennials Lean Decidedly Democratic

2014-05-20-PollSlide3.pngNot surprisingly given their values and issue preferences, Millennials start off much more open to supporting Democrats than Republicans. This Democratic advantage emerges in terms of 2012 support for President Obama, the 2014 generic vote for Congress, and in party identification. In each of these cases, Millennials prefer the Democrat to the Republican by high double digits.

  • In 2012, when they had a clear choice between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, Millennials backed President Obama by 27 points (56 percent to 29 percent).
  • The choice in 2014 is not as clear as it was two years ago. Nonetheless, the Democratic lead over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot among Millennials is still 15 points (42 percent to 27 percent).
  • Overall, Democrats have an 18-point party identification advantage over Republicans among Millennials (44 percent to 26 percent).

    Importantly, the 19 percent of Millennials who say they are Independent or have no party are not conservative or easily swayed by Republicans. In fact, 71 percent of Independent Millennials say progressive values are important for the country and 85 percent say they are moderate or liberal/progressive.

2014 and Beyond

Countering much conventional wisdom and beltway pontificating, findings from our Millennials survey reveal the degree to which many young voters continue to offer significant electoral opportunities for Democrats and for policy advocates on a host of progressive issues if they are engaged in a sustainable way. That said, Millennials should not be taken for granted. They will not turnout this year in the numbers Democrats want (or need) without a serious investment in outreach programs. But given the natural convergence of interests between Millennials and Democrats, a strategic and data-driven messaging and get-out-the-vote plan has the potential to pay big dividends and make the difference for Democrats in November.

Such efforts to engage, motivate, and turn out Millennials in 2014 will profoundly impact the 2016 election and beyond. As the Millennial electorate swells in the years to come and progressive young adults choose the party that best shares their values and issue stands, these young Americans become more participatory in the democratic process and more loyal to the Democratic Party. Such forces will shape not only their generation but also America's agenda and future.

Harstad Strategic Research has polled for President Barack Obama since 2002 -- including his primary wins in Illinois in 2004 and in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and 8 battleground states. The firm has won 14 of its last 16 U.S. Senate races -- winning in both good and bad years for Democrats. Harstad has also been victorious in 15 of its last 16 statewide campaigns for ballot measures.

The Youth Engagement Fund is a collaborative effort of individual and institutional funders to build 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 capacity and infrastructure in the youth civic engagement sector. It works with a diverse network of more than 80 national, state, and local organizations and provides shared resources and direct funding to support the most impactful young voter mobilization efforts.

Project New America (PNA) is a private company that provides candidates, advocacy organizations, policy advocates, and civic engagement stakeholders with the cutting edge tools and strategies needed to understand and communicate with a rapidly changing America.