We can expect the usual “so what” response from political pundits to a new Harvard Institute of Politics poll that found growing support for President Obama among the Millennial Generation – the population cohort between the ages of 18 and 29.
The web-based poll of 3,096 millennials taken between March 23 and April 9 found Obama leading his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, by a 17-point margin – gaining 6 percentage points since a similar poll taken in late November.
The conventional wisdom about this age group is that it doesn’t vote. That was the rap before the 2008 election when a number of pieces written before the general election dismissed youth enthusiasm for Obama as mostly liberal slackers who couldn’t be bothered to put down their bongs and go out to vote.
The CW on voter participation holds that it is the other end of the population spectrum – the older folks – who vote in higher than average numbers. And the older folk, well represented among the Tea Party cohort, aren’t big fans of the president.
The problem with this kind of echoed analysis is that it is heavy on the conventional and light on the wisdom.
The reality is that Millennials are voting in increasing numbers. Two million more in the age cohort voted in 2008 than did in 2004, bringing participation to a respectable 51 percent among Millennials. Analysis of the 2008 also found that minorities within this age group had an even higher percentage of participation – another fact that runs counter to accepted notions about voter participation.
The Obama campaign realized this in 2008 and again in the current election. A Pew Research Center report found that 25 percent of millennial voters were contacted by the Obama campaign in 2008 compared to 13 percent by the McCain campaign. This year Obama has seized many of the generation’s key issues, including his call for universities to lower costs, raising the availability of student loans, health care access and income disparity. Romney, who has struggled with an enthusiasm gap among older voters, has yet to make a credible pitch (other than deficit reduction) to younger voters.
But conventional wisdom can be a double-edged sword. The Obama campaign puts itself in peril if it assumes the youth vote is a lock in November and Romney would be wrong not to make his own pitch to what is becoming a power segment of the American electorate.
-Fred Bayles, the director of Boston University’s Statehouse Program, is a former national correspondent for The Associated Press and USA TODAY. He is author of Field Guide to Local Reporting.