Another day, another poll showing that young voters really, really, really do not like the Republican Party. According to the newest Harvard Institute of Politics survey of Americans young adults, by a two-to-one margin, voters under age thirty say they’d prefer a Democratic congress to a Republican one. Only a quarter approve of the job President Trump is doing. Only around a fifth think that Republicans in Congress care about people like them.
The numbers are as bleak as they have ever been and are nonetheless completely unsurprising to those of us who have watched this demographic group over the years.
What is surprising, then? How pitifully the Democratic Party continues to do with young voters as well, even in the era of Trump, with an enormous opportunity before them to once and for all lock down this generation. Instead, America’s young voters are increasingly opting for “none of the above.”
It is hard to blame them. Large volumes of evidence suggest millennials shy away from labels anyhow, and neither political party label is looking great these days. Consider the way the parties have handled sexual harassment allegations. Would you like to be in the party that ran away from and then embraced Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore or the party that protected Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., for weeks? Maybe the party of Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas? Perhaps the party of Sen. Al Franken. D-Minn.? Really? You choose neither? I can’t imagine why young people wouldn’t be breaking down the parties’ doors.
Two key surveys to come out in the last two weeks both tell a similar story about young Americans’ break with the parties. Just after Thanksgiving, NBC released its semiannual study of millennials and found that 71 percent of them say a “third major party is needed,” while only 26 percent say that the Republican and Democratic parties are doing an adequate job. It isn’t just young independents driving this question; only a quarter of young Democrats say they think the two parties offer adequate options.
When asked if they think either of the parties care about them, a bare majority – 53 percent – say they do think the Democratic Party cares about people like them.
The Harvard poll found an even grimmer result, with only 34 percent saying they think the Democratic Party cares about people like them. And while the Harvard poll finds bad news for Republicans on the question of which party young voters would rather see in charge of Congress, that doesn’t translate into a majority of young people confidently saying they will vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, according to the NBC poll. Instead, the winner is: “not sure” or “neither”.
This isn’t just the norm or angst in a poll that isn’t backed up by action. At my firm, Echelon Insights, we took a look at the voter files of a handful of key swing states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania – where we could get useful data on the voter registration behavior of young, 18-to-24-year-old voters going back over a decade. We found that for young people who registered to vote in the lead-up to the 2004 election, registering as an independent was fairly uncommon, done less than either Republican or Democratic registration.
Democrats, in 2004 and ever since, have seen large spikes in the share of new registrants signing up for their party during the presidential primary season, where young voters have been aggressively courted by at least one of their primary contenders. But while Republican registration among young, new voters has leveled off, hovering around a pitiful one-quarter of these new voters for the duration of the Obama presidency, the Democratic share trends downward over the past decade. After the 2012 election, “independent” becomes the popular choice among new young voters and stays that way with the exception of a brief spike around the 2016 Democratic primary fight.
Being independent, the least-chosen option among new young voters back in 2004, has become the choice of nearly half of young people deciding to register to vote and, in the Obama era, most of that growth took votes away from the Democrats.
I have written time and again about the damage the Republican Party has done to itself with the millennial generation. I continue to see evidence that the damage is growing worse and worse as the months go by. And yet, astonishingly, Democrats have not been able to seal the deal.
The American system is set up to have two parties competing for votes. But Americans have not had the same two parties to choose from since the beginning. Federalists, Whigs, Democratic-Republicans; parties are born, parties die, and parties realign themselves to adapt to shifting demographics and attitudes. Young voters are extremely unsatisfied with the choices they have before them. How they reshape — or make obsolete — the parties we have today will be the story of our nation’s politics for decades to come.