A New Generation Shapes a New Era

4/2/09
Politico

During the past couple of weeks, the Washington media and political establishment have focused on such matters of crucial and lasting importance as President Barack Obama’s possible “overexposure,” whether he showed suitable affect by chuckling during a TV interview in a time of severe economic difficulty, and just when he became angry about the bonuses received by American International Group executives.

To be fair, the focus on trivialities is bipartisan. We have also been treated to several days of discussion about whether conservatives Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter or moderate Meghan McCain have the appropriate body shapes for Republican women.

Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, America’s demography is steadily and quietly changing in a way that will fundamentally reshape the country for decades to come. A new generation, the millennial generation (born between 1982 and 2003), is coming of age to make over or realign U.S. politics. The approximately 95 million millennials compose the largest American generation in history. There are now about 17 million more millennials alive than there are baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), previously the largest generation, and 27 million more millennials than members of generation X (born between 1965 and 1981), the relatively small generation between the boomers and the millennials.

While about 4.5 million millennials have reached voting age every year since 2000, the generation didn’t enter the electorate in large enough numbers to make a real difference until 2008. And make a difference it did. Millennials were decisive in securing the Democratic presidential nomination for Obama. In November, millennials supported Obama over John McCain by a greater-than-2-to-1 ratio, accounting for 80 percent of Obama’s popular vote margin and turning what would have been a squeaker into a decisive victory. 

But the 2008 election was barely the tip of the millennial iceberg. Important as they were a year ago, not even half (41 percent) of millennials were eligible to vote, and they accounted for less than one-fifth (17 percent) of the voting-age population in 2008. A bare majority of millennials will be eligible in 2010. Close to two-thirds of them (61 percent), representing a quarter of the electorate, will be able to vote when Obama runs for reelection in 2012. By 2016, eight in 10 millennials will be eligible to vote, and they will account for 30 percent of the electorate. In 2020, when virtually all millennials will be old enough to vote, they will account for more than one-third of the electorate (36 percent). With numbers like these, the millennial generation will be in position to dominate U.S. elections and politics for decades to come.

However, the sheer size of the millennial generation is only part of the equation. If it were as sharply divided politically as is America’s last large generation, the baby boomers, the potential impact of the millennial generation would be greatly minimized. But millennials are anything but divided.

Among millennials, Democrats now hold a nearly 2-1 edge in party identification over Republicans (55 percent vs. 30 percent). Moreover, there is no evidence that the Democratic proclivities of millennials have in any way lessened since the Inauguration of Obama. The latest Daily Kos tracking survey indicates that clear majorities of millennials have favorable opinions of Obama (80 percent) and the Democratic Party (62 percent). By contrast, only 10 percent of them have a positive opinion of the GOP. Decades of voting behavior and public opinion research tell us that once identifications and attitudes like these are formed in early adulthood, they almost invariably remain constant throughout the lives of individuals and generations.

So while Washington continues to focus on the gotcha trivia of a past era, the demographic tectonic plates that underlie, shape and define American politics are shifting. Perhaps, with luck, the inside-the-Beltway political community will someday notice the change that’s going on around it.

But if history is any guide, it will most likely take the arrival of a new generation in the corridors of power to ratify in Washington the transformation that is sweeping the rest of America.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics” (Rutgers University Press, 2008).

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