Millennials & US Midterms: Passionate, But Are They Predictable?

by Dale Smith – Sixth Estate

As with all elections these days, the looming November 6thU.S. midterms have refreshed the conversation on how to mobilize millennial voters, who have their own values and attitudes. Before the Bellhosted a panel September 27thon the factors that guide millennials’ decisions, and what signals they might be sending for Canadian candidates ahead of the October 2019 federal election. Moderator Shawn McCarthywelcomed John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, and David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.

Della Volpe, an expert on millennial attitudes and behaviours, said his research shows that young Americans are deeply concerned about the state of their country, democracy, and institutions, and that there is a deep sense of anxiety among them. Polling also shows that they blame politicians, big money and the media for the state of things, but also the structural barriers to advancement. He also noted that there is waning support for capitalism among youth.

“Despite the fact that two-thirds of young Americans have more fear than hope, despite the fact that they’re questioning everything from the politicians to the media, to structural challenges including capitalism, there are a lot of indications in our data and other data sets…that we’re on the verge of seeing a once-in-a-generation attitudinal shift about the efficacy of politics and political engagement,” said Della Volpe.

For the midterms, Della Volpe said his polling shows an increase in Democratic and independent-identified voters who “definitely plan to vote” relative to the last “wave” election in 2010, whereas there is a dip in self-identified Republicans.

“We expect to see an increase in overall participation, but more importantly a change in the composition of the vote,” said Della Volpe. “We have far more young Democrats participating than young Republicans.”

Della Volpe said that the reason some youth don’t vote is that they don’t see tangible results, as they do with community service. But in the Trump era, he is seeing a rise in engagement comparable to the aftermath of 9/11.

From a Canadian perspective, Coletto said that while the values are similar, the majority of young Canadians feel optimistic about Canada, and that there is less adherence to partisanship.

“In 2011, the Conservatives and the NDP basically split the youth vote,” said Coletto. “Four years later, Justin Trudeau did very well. There’s a lot of fluidity in young Canadians.”

Abacus’s own numbers, released in April 2016, showed forty-five per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 25 voted Liberal, compared with 25 per cent for the NDP and 20 per cent for the Conservative Party.

Della Volpe said that the political awakening for older millennials — who so effectively mobilized for the Obama campaign in 2008 — was 9/11, and they have continued to be a reliable progressive voting bloc. For the younger millennials, the Great Recession showed them the failures of the system, and that Republicans failed to take advantage of the opportunities that it presented, which fed the grassroots movement for Bernie Sanders.

“The anger and questions that were raised about how this sort of thing happened in 2016 have now been channeled into a very productive series of conversations on campuses, and when I ask a young person why they’re voting, they’re more likely to tell me that they’re doing it to support some marginalized population within their community or within the country,” said Della Volpe.

On foreign policy, Della Volpe outlined in an RCP op-ed in Maythe level of support among young Americans for multilateralism. The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics’ Bi-Annual Survey of Youth Attitudes showed that an overwhelming percentage of young Americans under the age of 30 — regardless of party affiliation — believe in a highly collaborative approach to foreign policy.

For his part, when asked about millennials’ values versus those of older generations, Coletto pointed to the sense of fairness and equality, and in Canada, climate change has a sense of urgency. He also said there is a sense that the system is broken, which is something that Trudeau was able to tap into in Canada the way Sanders did in the U.S.

Della Volpe said that by contrast, one of the top issues for young Americans is school shootings, as well as inequality. Reaching young millennial women is also where there is contrast between Canada and the U.S.

“Making gender equality a core part of the government’s agenda speaks to the generation, and particularly to young women,” said Coletto of the Trudeau government. “The broader MeToo movement has empowered them and given them a voice.”

Coletto also noted that Canada’s regional divides are more pronounced than class, particularly around issues like climate change and carbon taxes. He also said that housing affordability and jobs are the most pressing needs, which provides an opportunity for the Conservatives to come up with policies to fill that space.

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