This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.
President Obama is holding a town hall meeting Thursday in California with a group he wants to mobilize for the midterm elections: millennial entrepreneurs. Millennials — young people ages 18-34 — are a key part of the Democratic coalition.
In just a few years, millennials will become the biggest demographic bulge in the electorate. For a very long time, young people's partisan preferences looked pretty much like everyone else's — they divided their votes between the two parties. After 2004 that changed, and they swung very heavily to the Democrats. But they're not the Obama-adoring college students of 2008 anymore. They're the generation hard-hit by the economy.
"Democrats have an advantage with them at this moment, but the one presidential candidate they really have voted for overwhelmingly is Barack Obama," says Peter Levine, who studies young people's civic participation at Tufts University. "And he's not gonna be available anymore. ... I think the Democrats have a job to shift the allegiance to the party. Quite a tough job ... Republicans should make an active play for them."
So projections that millennials are once and forever enthusiastic Democrats will be put to the test of the next few cycles. To find out more about their views, we asked six millennials to join us at La Colombe cafe in the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to talk politics. They discussed political gridlock, economic issues and social issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights. Listen to their full conversation, and view excerpts below:
I have issues mostly with the two-party system. ... I wouldn't blame the Republicans for the gridlock we see; I blame that more as a systematic issue as a result of our type of government, you know, the way it's structured it's prone to create gridlock. But I think the issue I see is that [the Republican Party is] not even willing to touch the social issues that we are all talking about here. ... I expect gridlock. The problem for me is partisanship in Washington, which, when you have an extremely partisan Washington and working within a system that is prone to gridlock, you're going to have a government that doesn't get anything done. ... The problem is that Washington just does not reflect the true American, the way America feels. You know, research shows America is not as partisan as we say they are.
I would say that it's very difficult to find something that really aligns with what you believe. In a perfect world, I would say I am an independent, but in the system that we have currently where the two parties dominate, we have to choose a side. And in that case I would definitely say Democrat. I think there is this association with the Republicans of it being dominated by white males and the business scene, whereas the Democrats seem more inclusive, and that speaks to me.
As an Arab-American, when you talk about privacy and when we look at what's happened in recent years right after 9/11 — we've seen the wiretapping of Arabs, all of their information being taken and used in different ways — it's an abuse of power. And so when I think about that and I think about Republicans trying to use the privacy issue to get more voters, it is interesting to me. Because, as you know, Arabs used to vote Republican and they used to be very conservative and they would mesh with them on that. And so now it's interesting to see that maybe they're going to get the Arab vote back. Although I don't really agree with the Republican Party, it is an issue that I support and it is something I do think they're on the right track with.
Most of us here probably have college loans, and I think Social Security, I think it's good to have a safety net, you work towards it, and I think it's about helping your elders and things like that. I want to pay in for it for my mom; I want my kids to pay in for it. So I do think that government is a helpful thing.
I think these [social] issues are so important to us too because growing up we were exposed to them more. So as far as ... gay rights, when my mom was growing up that may have been the secret in the family you didn't really talk about it. But growing up, you know, I knew my uncle was gay and that didn't matter to me because I'm 5 — I don't know the difference so I think that's why it's so important. As you get older you realize that there are people that are against it and you're kind of like, "Why? It hasn't caused me any harm; it doesn't cause you any harm." So I think that's why we're so focused on issues like that.
Obviously the government is a tool that we have to have in our society — it gives us laws, it gives us rules — but I would also like to point out there's a lot of bureaucracy involved. There's a lot of government bailouts that are happening, and this is money that we're paying into the kitty that we'll probably never see in our generation. We have politicians that make, you know, exorbitant amounts of money and ... these are [our] taxes ... we're buying their Lexuses, we're buying their McMansions, and obviously I feel like that's a system that's just not working for working-class people.
I kind of feel like politicians at this point of time, they rely on being very beige. They don't have any kind of stance either way, and that's how these guys are getting kind of pushed into politics. I mean, you look at Obama — he had no vote either way until he went into the presidency. It's like, politicians are almost negatively impacted for having an opinion. You know, like Rand Paul probably doesn't have much a chance at ... being the president because he voices an opinion which, you know, in all honestly is a breath of fresh air.
My dad is a labor worker and I saw unemployment help us so much growing up. And, yeah, I do fear that. Especially, you know, thankful for the loans that the government is giving me, but where is that going to take me in the next two years? You know, am I guaranteed a job anymore? No, and I am scared for my economic future.
[My dad] has gone through just periods of unemployment. The labor union is tough — sometimes there's jobs, sometimes there's not; it depends on the weather. There's so many union workers out there. Currently he is working now, but [he has] gone through periods of unemployment, which, you know, there's a couple months you're fine and a couple months you're not. So definitely living that paycheck to paycheck, I have felt firsthand with my family.
I think that as millennials we have a voice, and a strong voice. And within the next couple years, especially as we get into our careers and prominent roles, you'll see that throughout the United States and in policy.
I came out of college and ... the economy crashed ... I walked into my office every day not knowing if they were gonna close the doors and turn us away. I mean, they were hemorrhaging employees, and I watched people who would have not gotten by had it not been for unemployment. ... I think that's going to, probably forever, change my perspective on government assistance like that, just because I saw how bad it was and how desperately people needed it.
I think we pay attention way more than we get credit for. I think that there's this misperception of millennials as being selfish, as being unengaged, as not working hard, as being difficult. I think that's wrong. I think anybody who's grown up in my years and years after me that has to deal with this economy knows that's wrong, we've worked really hard. And we pay attention. Sometimes we pay more attention than older generations. And we're going to keep paying attention. And I think that our viewpoints are not locked in, we're not going to be monolithic from the start, but I think that we are going to pay a lot more attention moving forward.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today, at a startup incubator in Santa Monica, California, President Obama is hosting a town hall with a group of millennial entrepreneurs. This demographic, people between the ages of 18 and 34, are a key part of the Democratic coalition. The president wants to mobilize them for the midterm elections. In a just a few years, millennials will become the largest demographic bulge in the electorate. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports on how they've been voting and how they might vote in the future.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For a very long time, young people's partisan preferences looked pretty much like everyone else's. They divided their votes between the two parties. But after 2004, that changed, and they swung heavily - very heavily - to the Democrats.
PETER LEVINE: That was unprecedented because there's never been anything like the tilt towards either party among youth in an election before.
LIASSON: That's Peter Levine, who studies young people's civic participation at Tufts University. DePaul University political scientist Molly Andolina also researches young people in politics.
MOLLY ANDOLINA: When 66 percent of an age group votes for a particular political party, that's a big deal. And the other party should be wary.
LIASSON: Republicans are worried, and they're trying to do something about it - more on that in a minute. But first, why do young people vote in such large numbers for Democrats?
ANDOLINA: Part of what is fueling Democratic success here is pure demographics. This is a generation that is more nonwhite than any generation that has come of age.
LIASSON: And minorities skew Democratic. But the blue tilt of millennial voters is also because of the party's positions.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, can I get a mocha latte with skim milk please?
LIASSON: We asked six millennial voters to meet us at a coffeehouse near NPR. Arturo Chang, Shaza Lootfee and Alexa Grazioli were in agreement about the reason they prefer Democrats.
ARTURO CHANG: I have issues mostly with the two-party system. But in my case, I consider myself a Democrat because of the social issues.
SHAZA LOOTFEE: I think there is this association with the Republicans of it being dominated by white males and the business scene, whereas the Democrats seem more inclusive. And that speaks to me.
ALEXA GRAZIOLI: I can't lie and say that I'm very knowledgeable of, like, fiscal issues and things like that. I'm more focused on social issues, mainly women's rights.
LIASSON: On the most fundamental issue in American politics, the size and role of government, young voters like Ginger Gibson tend to agree with Democrats that a strong social safety net is a good thing.
GINGER GIBSON: I came out of college, and then the - like, the economy crashed. I walked into my office every day not knowing if they were going to close the doors and turn us away. I mean, they were hemorrhaging employees. And I watched people who would have never gotten by had it not been for unemployment. I think that's going to probably forever change my perspective on government assistance like that just because I saw how bad it was and how desperately people needed it.
LIASSON: But neither party has an economic agenda that's reassuring to Jessica Ramzer, who, like most millennials, has a ton of student debt.
JESSICA RAMZER: You know, thankful for the loans that the government is giving me. But where is that taking me in the next two years? You know, am I guaranteed a job anymore? No. And it really - I am scared for my economic future.
LIASSON: And when it comes to civil liberties, it's the Republican message that speaks to Steve Crouch.
STEVE CROUCH: For security reasons, you know, I actually lean more Republican because they want less government. And so with that, it becomes kind of less of the security issues of people having my Social Security number.
LIASSON: The bottom line, says Peter Levine, Democrats cannot take the long-term allegiance of millennial voters for granted.
LEVINE: Democrats have an advantage with them at this moment. But the one presidential candidate they really have voted for overwhelmingly is Barack Obama. And he's not going to be available anymore. I think the Democrats have a job to shift the allegiance to the party - quite a tough job. And Republicans should make an active play for them.
LIASSON: Republicans are making an active play for millennials. The RNC has stepped up its outreach to young voters. It's showing up on college campuses, political terrain the GOP used to seed to Democrats. And there are lots of new youth organizations backed by conservatives.
EVAN FEINBERG: My name's Evan Feinberg. I'm the president of Generation Opportunity. And we are a nonpartisan millennial advocacy organization that thinks that young people deserve more opportunities and that they're going to get that through more freedom and less government.
LIASSON: Generation Opportunity recently sponsored an event at a bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Evan Feinberg introduced his former boss, the Republican senator who's done the most to reach out to young people.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FEINBERG: We've got an ophthalmologist from Kentucky that's doing a lot to spread freedom and liberty. And without further ado, I'm going to turn the microphone over to Senator Rand Paul.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SENATOR RAND PAUL: Thank you. Thank you.
LIASSON: Paul doesn't focus on the social issues that keep millennials away from Republicans, like immigration or gay marriage. Instead, he talks about the huge number of young people who have to move back in with their parents or the way the nation's drug laws remove opportunity for millennials because of youthful mistakes. And he talks about privacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL: How many here have a cell phone? Anybody have a cell phone?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
PAUL: How many people think that it's none of the government's damn business what you do on your cell phone?
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LIASSON: If Republicans are working hard to make inroads with millennials, the Democrats have a completely different challenge.
ANNE JOHNSON: I'm Anne Johnson. I'm the executive director of Generation Progress, which is the youth organizing and engagement arm at the Center for American Progress.
LIASSON: Johnson is confident that when millennials do turn out, they will vote for Democrats. But this election year, they're disenchanted and disappointed with everyone, including President Obama.
JOHNSON: When young people look at what's happening in politics now, the inability of Congress to pass laws, the economic situation that young people are in, struggling under student debt, they're looking for people to do things about it. And I think that the real challenge we have isn't necessarily about where they stand on policies, but it's about whether or not young people are going to engage in the political system. And are they going to become regular voters?
LIASSON: By 2020, millennials will be around 40 percent of the voting age population, by far the biggest demographic slice of the electoral pie. Whether they maintain their loyalty to the Democrats or not is unclear. But Johnson is confident that they will not be ignored by candidates of either party.
JOHNSON: Because they're just not going to win their elections unless they are talking to these young people. And so I think it is both a challenge - but it's also an opportunity, just by the sheer size and force of this generation, that we're going to start to see more politicians really actively trying to engage with this generation.
LIASSON: And as this generation gets older, their values and political priorities may change. Both parties will be trying to keep up with them. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And you can join the conversation about millennials on Twitter with the hash tag, #newboom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.