The Millennial generation is forging a distinct path into adulthood. Millennials, roughly 18 to 33 years of age, have stepped out into the world relatively unattached to organized politics, linked to social media, burdened by student debt and characteristically optimistic about the future.
“I try not to listen too much to other people’s decisions and I just focus on what I believe,” said Haley Easthom, a junior at Chapel Hill High School. “If someone else doesn’t think that way, then I have the right to defend what I need to say.”
This view is common among young people. A recent study by the Pew Re- search Center found that half of Millenni- als now describe themselves as political independents or unaffiliated with any political party.
“People like some things about the Democratic Party, and people like some things about the Republican Party…. Millennials start to feel like they can’t really choose,” said Ken Rogerson, Professor at Duke Universtiy’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
The political independence of millennials was an important factor in the voter turnout of the recent 2014 midterm elections. The national exit poll estimated that of young Americans aged 18 through 29, only 21 percent voted. Although this turnout is consistent with previous midterm elections, it is still significantly lower than the 33 percent total turnout.
Historically, young people’s party pref- erences looked a lot like every other gen- eration’s—they divided their votes evenly between the two parties. The Center for American Progress claims that by 2020, Millennials will become the largest voting demographic in the electorate, making this issue more important.
When required to choose between political parties, Millennials tend to side with the Democratic Party.
“They’re more in tune with things that are going on now,” senior Celita Smith said. “Whereas Republicans, they’re more tradition, and most of our generation is breaking away from tradition… things like abortion and same-sex marriage are all issues our generation agrees with that Republicans don’t.”
Rogerson says social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and immigration reform are the issues that matter most to Millennials.
“People will identify with that political party, even if they don’t agree with the rest of the issues, just because of that one linchpin issue,” Rogerson said. “This is why they are leaning Democratic.”
Described as the “digital natives,” Millennials use technology and social media at higher frequencies than any other generation. The Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of Millennials have a Facebook account, creating a new landscape to gather political information.
“Most young people get any news they get online… the problem with that is they get their news from people that think a lot like them and they don’t get any news from people who don’t think like them,” Rogerson said. “Social media has decreased the spectrum of potential ideological approaches to understanding politics for young people nowadays.”
According to the latest census, Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history. The Census Bureau projects that the full U.S. population will be majority non-white around 2043, a trend driven by a wave of young immigrants entering the U.S.
The racial makeup of today’s young adults is a key factor in explaining their political liberalism. The Pew Research Center’s National Survey of Latinos found that among Latino immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, some 33 percent identify as political independents, 31 percent as Democrats and just four percent as Republicans. The remaining 17 percent mention some other political party, and 15 percent say they “don’t know” or refuse to answer.
With such a large portion of the voting demographic not supporting either major political party, some question the future of the parties.
“There are calls to reform, to try and get a stronger third party as a part of the system.” Rogerson said. “I think because of the way we are set up, I see no change in that in the future.”
Peter Levine, who studies young people’s civic participation at Tufts University, suggests that parties offer more opportunities to younger generations to counteract their political independence.
“The parties would need to build up more of a grassroots effort to gain more influence, with opportunities for young people to volunteer and participate and have a voice in the organization,” Levine said. “I’m not too optimistic that will happen.”
The low turnout of the 2014 midterm elections combined with a lack of political identity could leave Millennials’ future votes up for grabs.
“Democrats have an advantage with them at this moment, but the one presidential candidate they really have voted for overwhelmingly is Barack Obama,” Levine said. “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…. Republicans should make an active play for them.”
-By Chloe Gruesbeck