Millennial voters: Obama gaining, but Romney has an opening

President Obama has built a 17-point lead among voters ages 18 to 29, but he's struggling among white non-Hispanics. Only 41 percent support the president, according to Harvard's Institute of Politics.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Barack Obama arrives to speak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tuesday. The president leads Mitt Romney 43 percent to 26 percent among voters ages 18 to 29, according to a poll released Tuesday by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

President Obama now leads Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points – 43 percent to 26 percent – among voters ages 18 to 29, according to a poll released Tuesday by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP). That margin represents a 6-point gain from the last survey of so-called Millennial voters by the IOP in November.

The report comes in a week when Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are courting young voters, with special focus on high student debt and legislation aimed at preventing student loan rates from doubling on July 1.

And while pessimism about America’s direction still far outweighs optimism among these voters, 20 percent are now saying the nation is on the right track, up from 12 percent four months ago. Forty-three percent say the nation is heading in the wrong direction, down from 52 percent.  

The Harvard survey also found that, by a wide margin, Obama voters are more willing to volunteer than are Romney voters. Seventeen percent of those who said they were voting for Obama said they would be “very likely” to volunteer for his campaign if asked, and 35 percent said they were “somewhat likely.” Among Romney voters, only 5 percent are “very likely” to volunteer and only 27 percent are “somewhat likely.”

“We’re seeing an uptick in support among America’s younger voters for the president, for his job performance, and for his electoral chances in November,” IOP director Trey Grayson said Tuesday. “However, in potentially good news for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the president continues to struggle with key segments of the Millennial demographic – even those which helped power him to victory over Sen. [John] McCain in 2008.”

Specifically, Obama is struggling with white Millennials, who backed him in 2008 by 10 points over Senator McCain, 55 percent to 44 percent. Today, young white non-Hispanics voters, 58 percent of the survey’s sample, give Obama only a 41 percent job approval rating. Among young Hispanics, who represented 21 percent of the sample, Obama leads Mr. Romney by 39 points, 50 percent to 11 percent.

“Watching the president’s ratings among young Hispanics could be an important harbinger for the fall campaign; this segment of the youth electorate has been especially volatile in recent years,” the IOP report said.

The survey confirmed a trend among Millennial voters that has been present for many years: that traditional party and ideological labels mean little to them. Only 16 percent are “strong Democrats” and only 10 percent are “strong Republicans.” Twenty-five percent self-identify as liberal, and the same percent call themselves conservative.

On 15 issues tested, one showed a marked difference from a year ago: whether having health insurance is a “right.” One year ago, 50 percent of Millennials believed that “basic health insurance is a right for all people, and someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.” Now, 44 percent of Millennials believe this.

An analysis of the survey data found that about three-quarters of Millennials fall into four distinct ideological groups rather than parties:

• New Progressives (15 percent). Eight-five percent support Obama. Almost all agree that basic health insurance, food, and shelter should be provided for those who cannot afford them. Eighty-one percent agree that government should spend more to reduce poverty, and 44 percent say government spending is an effective way to boost economic growth.

• New Conservatives (11 percent). Eighty-one percent are Republican or lean Republican, and 37 percent support the tea party. Ninety-seven percent are very concerned about the moral direction of the country. Seventy percent believe homosexual relationships are morally wrong, and 58 percent believe religious values should play a more important role in government. Forty-three percent agree that it is sometimes necessary to attack potentially hostile countries, rather than waiting until the United States is attacked to respond.

• New Religious (28 percent). This group “is shaping up to one of the most influential voter segments in American politics,” the IOP report says. In the 2008 election, 64 percent supported Obama. Now 45 percent support Obama, 23 percent support Romney, and 33 percent are undecided. Ideologically, they are mixed: 30 percent liberal, 40 percent conservative, and 39 percent moderate.

This is a multicultural group, with 43 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, and 19 percent black. Some 87 percent say that religion plays an important part in their lives, with 28 percent Catholic and 17 percent fundamentalist/evangelical Christian.

“Their views do not fit neatly into traditional left-right categories, as they balance their strong feelings toward religion and morality, with views of an active federal government,” the report says.

This group tracks with New Conservatives in its concern over the moral direction of the country and support for a greater role for religious values in government. But it tracks with New Progressives in believing that health insurance is a right and that the government should increase spending to reduce poverty.

New Passives (23 percent). This group earned its name from its low political engagement, and showed a relative lack of familiarity with or passion toward many the 15 issues about which they were questioned. Still, they showed some willingness to participate in the 2012 election, with 70 percent registered to vote.  

They did show passion on some issues, though, and demonstrated libertarian leanings: Most disagreed that qualified minorities should be given special preferences; most disagreed that religious values should play a more important role in government; most disagreed that homosexual relationships are morally wrong; and few agreed that basic health insurance is a right.

This group is split three ways ideologically: 37 percent liberal, 32 percent conservative, and 30 percent moderate.

In the survey overall, a total of 3,096 18- to 29-year-olds were surveyed, with a margin of error of +/- 1.7 percentage points.

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