The so-called millennial generation helped to elect Barack Obama in 2008. But their turnout faded in 2012 because their expectations for instant gratification were not met, and they hold a jaded view that their votes don’t matter, a South Carolina pollster told a Raleigh audience.
Millennials “don’t see voting as a civic duty or a responsibility,” said Rob Autry, founder of Meeting Street Research, a national public opinion research firm in Charleston, S.C.
Autry spoke at Tuesday’s NC NEXT conference sponsored by the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation featuring individual speakers and panel discussions involving young business leaders and young elected officials.
Autry is conducting The Millennial Project to measure attitudes and opinions of younger voters heading into the 2016 elections. He held focus groups comprising 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats in Denver, Orlando, and Columbus, Ohio.
While “not a statistically sound sample,” Autry said the first-phase findings are instructive.
Millennials believe “their vote doesn’t really matter,” Autry said. “They don’t see the value in it.” As an example, he noted that in 2008 Obama won the support of millennials, but the young voters believed Obama abandoned their issues, so many didn’t vote in 2012.
Politicians hoping to unleash a potential surge in voting from the 18-to-34 age group must identify and respond to millennials’ issues, and engage them in their language.
“[Democratic U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders is the only one who comes close” to addressing millennials’ three main issues, Autry said.
Those are: the inability to find jobs that pay well; soaring education costs and mounting education debt that many refuse to pay; and rising health care costs that cause about half of them to remain uninsured rather than paying for expensive plans under Obamacare.
“Millennials are known for wanting instant gratification, and with elections and voting … you go years and don’t see what you were promised,” Autry said of millennials’ pessimism.
They believe voting is “inconvenient, and the system’s antiquated. Honestly this was probably the most cited answer why millennials don’t vote,” Autry said.
This is the online buying generation “used to things being delivered to them” efficiently and immediately, he said. They don’t see the electoral system performing that function, and waiting in line 30 minutes is too much of an inconvenience.
Further complicating the ability to corral their votes, millennials are not enamored of party branding. Most who register by party affiliation do so only because that is their parents’ party.
Millennials are “not loyal to a specific party, and they can’t understand why there aren’t more,” Autry said. “They can’t understand why they have only two candidates to choose from most times,” and contrast that dearth of options with the hundreds of consumer options when shopping.
Republican millennials see the 2016 presidential race as between Donald Trump and someone else. They acknowledge Trump’s business successes and straight talk, “but don’t think his statements are presidential, and that he’s a bit too hot-headed,” Autry said. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson are seen as possibilities, but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did not receive a vote from anyone, Republican or Democrat, in any of the focus groups.
Most Democratic millennials thought Hillary Clinton was the likely nominee, even though Sanders got them most excited. “There was not a lot of love for her,” and little trust, Autry said. There was suspicion about her intentions, and whether she is running for the right reasons.
Jobs, education, and health care are all issues that both Democrats and Republicans are passionate about, and would be winning issues with millennials, Autry said.
Because they lack party loyalty, Autry said, he could imagine a Democratic millennial voting for the “right kind of Republican,” and Republican millennials voting for “the right kind of Democrat” on those policy issues.
Given millennials’ apathy and fickleness, “It’s easy to take them for granted,” Autry said. Political campaigns might ask why they should spend precious resources on a group unlikely to vote.
“I think there’s tremendous hope for this generation to get involved” if their issues are addressed, they are educated on the importance of their vote, and campaigns reach out to them on the social media platforms where they operate, Autry said.
During his presentation, Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said “a generational transformation” is occurring in the nation and state that will bring new types of candidates into politics.
“There is going to be that interest, and there is going to be that need” for candidates of the millennial generation to stand up and take part in the process, Bitzer said.
An interesting element of that could be that 60 percent of millennials want government to be more involved in solving issues, while only 46 percent of other generations want more government intrusion, Bitzer said. And 60 percent of millennials live in urban areas, where most of North Carolina’s population is coalescing.
Statewide party registration breaks down 41 percent Democratic, 28 percent unaffiliated, and 30 percent Republican. “An interesting dynamic moving forward” is that millennial party registration is 36 percent Democratic, 38 percent unaffiliated, and 25 percent Republican, Bitzer said.
That trend is troubling for Republicans as they consider “how to reshape [the] party’s narrative,” Bitzer said. Democrats are not faring so well along that trend line either, he said.
In 2008, 68 percent of registered millennials voted. But the numbers dropped to 21 percent in 2010 and 2014, and 55 percent in 2012, Bitzer said.
Rebecca Tippett, Carolina demographer at the UNC Population Center, said millennials tend to move around a lot, and likely don’t get involved in or educated on local issues. That could help explain why they vote in smaller percentages in off-year, local and state elections, and turn out in higher numbers for presidential elections.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.