Are Millennials Making a Right Turn?

Are young people abandoning President Obama and the Democrats? A growing number of political pundits seem to think so — and they have data to support their argument.

“Millennials are not so hot on their president,” Ron Fournier of National Journal wrote late last year after a Harvard poll showed many 18-to-29-year-olds would like to recall Obama from office. A more recent study by the Pew Research Center says only 27 percent of young Americans consider themselves Democrats, down from 35 percent in 2008.

Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t we hear just five years ago that the George W. Bush presidency had created a generation of lifelong Democrats? Yes, we did. In fact, Democratic strategist James Carville wrote a book called 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.

And didn’t we read that once someone has cast a ballot for a political party at the age of 18 to 20, they’re likely to stick with that same party in the future? Yes, we heard that too.

So what happened? Perhaps millennial attitudes changed because of the struggling economy, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act or the NSA spying program. Or perhaps it’s normal for young people to drift rightward politically as they get older.

This is the classic nature versus nurture debate. One camp argues that an improving political and economic environment (i.e., nurture) can help a political party in the long term because party allegiance is a form of social identification. In the same way, a country perceived to be going in the wrong direction can sour young voters on the party in power. Many Americans who came of age during the New Deal became proud Democrats. Those who cast their first votes for Ronald Reagan became lifelong Republicans.

Academics have used various methods to prove this point. Slate reported on a study by economists Ethan Kaplan and Sharon Mukand that examined political allegiances of Californians who turned 18 just before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. As the country reeled in the aftermath of terrorism, Americans became more conservative. The researchers found that young voters who registered after the attacks were more likely to become Republicans — and stay Republicans — than those who had sent in their voter registration forms prior to 9/11.

The “nature” side of this debate, on the other hand, argues that young people are typically more liberal and older people are more conservative. Anthropologist Avi Tuschman notes in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article that it’s universal for people in their 20s to demonstrate higher levels of “openness,” which is associated with curiosity, a preference for variety and voting for candidates on the left. On the other hand, as young people age, their sense of “conscientiousness” increases, and that trait is associated with self-discipline, dutifulness and voting for more conservative candidates.

Of course, not everyone is the same. Age groups’ attitudes are still distributed across the political spectrum on a bell curve. “The entire curve, however, moves somewhat to the right during the mid-20s,” Tuschman writes.

Sometimes, national events and circumstances cause nurture to trump nature. Tuschman calls the overwhelming support for Reagan among 18-to-24-year-olds in 1984 a major exception to the rule, because young people became conservative faster than expected. In the long run, he says, a gradual shift to the right is more typical.

If our political profiles are shaped by evolution, one life event with a genetic connection does accelerate change. Parenthood, which tends to occur in one’s 30s, creates an “illusory sense of risk,” Tuschman writes. New parents become more vigilant about the world’s dangers, which translates into the belief that society needs to get tougher on crime. Since this type of thinking is associated with conservatism, parenthood helps to nudge a population rightward.

The Pew Research Center’s recent studyMillennials in Adulthood, seems to buttress the “nature” argument when it reports that 53 percent of all Baby Boomers say they have become more conservative as they have grown older, while only 35 percent say they have grown more liberal. Pew admits, however, that multiple factors can influence age differences in party affiliation.

In considering the variables, it feels a bit like we Baby Boomers are pulling and tugging at our millennial children once again, arguing over who influences them the most or whether their beliefs are preordained.

But guess what: Our youngest adult generation may confound the entire nature versus nurture debate. Here’s why:

  1. Millennials don’t like political parties. Pew says half don’t identify with either major party, and only 31 percent think there is a great deal of difference between them. The good news for Democrats is that polls show millennials are still acting like 20-somethings. (Most believe in an activist government and support same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, for instance.) They haven’t abandoned the issues they care about; they just don’t want to wear the Democratic team uniform. The bad news for Democrats is they can’t count on young people to vote regularly or to support mediocre candidates out of loyalty.
  2. Millennials are far less trusting than other generations. Only 19 percent say “most people can be trusted,” according to the 2014 Pew report. If a politician or either political party does something to severely jeopardize the trust of young people, it will be extremely tough to regain their trust.
  3. Millennials have record-low marriage rates, Pew reports. This means many young people will most likely be postponing parenthood and, consequently, some of the conservative shift that Tuschman has documented. This could give Democrats a few extra years to recover from the disappointments of the Obama administration.

So while these factors will undoubtedly make it hard to predict millennials’ voting behavior in the decades to come, they don’t support the notion that young adults have already made a turn to the right.

Don't forget to sign up for K Street Café's mailing-list to receive news about exclusive content and events.