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Analysis: Political-party loyalty hard to judge among millennials

A student watches projections roll in at an election watch party in the Ohio Union on Nov. 8. Credit: Sam Harris | Assistant Campus Editor

As a third-year in political science, Merit Godbey described himself as being on-the-fence when it comes to politics. Citing his studies in politics and economics, he sees fiscal responsibility as the most important issue when he votes.

Aside from fiscal responsibility, Godbey listed civil rights and same-sex marriage as his other top issues.

“I’m a fiscal conservative and a social moderate,” he said.

Godbey, like much of the population his age, doesn’t vote like generations past. Instead of strictly supporting the Democratic or Republican parties, he’s in the middle.

Every four years, Ohio finds itself in a new competition as a political battleground — 2016 was no exception. For many generations of voters, the 2016 presidential election was another chance to have their voices heard. For millennials — those born roughly between 1980 and the mid-to-late 1990s — this was their first time, or one of the first times, to have a voice in national politics.

A Lantern analysis of Franklin County registered voters database — which compiled information such as registered party affiliation, voter ZIP code and if the individual voted in a general or primary dating back to the year 2000 — shows less people ages 18 to 30 are registering with a specific party affiliation compared to other generations.

The analysis also looked at voters born between 1986 and 1997 to see how they compared to other generations in their appropriate city. It found that many factors can influence voting preference — age, where you are from, life experiences — but there is no true determining factor in predicting how a millennial will vote. In cities with more registered Democratic voters, such as Columbus, there are more millennials registered as Democrats. On the other hand, cities like Westerville, which has more registered Republican voters, there are more millennials registered for the Democratic Party.

Millennials: A mixed bag

Although millennials as a whole supported then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, a lower percentage voted for Clinton than they did for President Barack Obama during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, according to Tuft University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The percentage voting Republican, 37 percent, stayed the same, versus 60 percent for Obama in 2012 and 55 percent for Clinton in 2016. According to Pew Research Center, 66 percent of voters under 30 voted Obama in 2008.

Although the Democratic Party reigns supreme in many cities throughout Franklin County, both major parties noticed a significant drop off in millennial voters. Registered Democratic voters born in 1989 totaled 2,228 compared to the 695 voters born in 1997. Similarly, registered Republican millennials drop off with 1,019 registered voters born in 1990 compared to 333 registered voters born in 1997.

This graph shows how voters born in 1980 to 1997 are registering in declining numbers, regardless of party affiliation. Source: Ohio Secretary of State. Credit: Mitch Hooper | Engagement Editor

This generation, born after 1986, is often attended college instead of joining the workforce immediately after high school, being more socially concious about topics such as LGBT issues, but also possibly a little uneducated when it comes to politics and economics, said Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science.

“If you would ask (students), let’s say about economics, we might have a third of our students say ‘I don’t like government being so involved in everything,’” and ‘“I don’t like taxes,’” Asher said. “But if you also ask them about abortion and gay rights, they would also say, ‘I don’t want government regulating there.’”

Steven Speck, a second-year in agribusiness and applied economics, agrees with Asher. While he does not discount the importance of social issues, Speck said he sees the economy as the No. 1 issue in this country and is starting to notice a change among fellow millennial voters.

“I would say, economically speaking, (millennials) are shifting toward more conservative principles when it comes to dealing with national finances and stuff,” Speck said.

Though Speck favors the conservative ideologies for the economy, he recognizes millennials in the Republican party are also changing their beliefs in regard to social issues.

“Looking at the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage,” he said. “You don’t see a huge push back from conservatives.”

Asher said millennials don’t yet have a strong party affiliation to one side, therefore, their beliefs are mixed.

“(Millennials) really don’t want the government involved in their economic life or their personal life,” he said. “They are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.”

So who are these millennial voters? They make up the largest living generation, but hold the lowest voter turnout, according to data from the United States Election Project which uses data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, November Voting and Registration Supplement. What issues are important to these voters and do they differ from the generations before them?

To gain a better understanding of millennial voters and how they compare to generations past, we analyzed each generation according to birth year with ages as followed: 19 to 30, 31 to 51 and 51 to 71. Voter data from those born in 1998 and 1935 or earlier were omitted from this analysis as much of the data was skewed and unreliable.

Politicians attempt to speak to all demographics when they create their policies and visit towns and cities to deliver campaign speeches. Winning a specific demographic in a state could be the determining factor in winning that state. With a large and new-to-voting population such as millennials, politicians have begun crafting new tactics to obtain these voters by adding topics such as affordable education to their platforms.

Citing the 2016 presidential election, Asher said he believes this lack of party affiliation as an example that reflects why millennials might feel turned off by politics. Asher said some millennials weren’t happy about their options in regards to the presidential candidates, especially within the two main parties. Asher said Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, appealed to many millennials because they have a small list of issues they feel are important.

“A lot of students … loved Bernie Sanders, and for that group it is probably a very limited set of issues,” Asher said. “They probably didn’t that much care about foreign policy, they didn’t care about the whole threat of the national security issues.”

As the 2016 presidential election was the first time for many millennials to cast their vote, Asher said voting habits start to be created. He said millennials may be turned off by Trump’s rhetoric, and, as a result, be convinced to identify more with the Democratic party.

“They say, “Well, gee, if I’m voting Democratic, I wonder if that means I am a Democrat?”,” Asher said. “The vote is a behavior, but how you think about things is more of an attitude.”

Franklin County by the numbers

The city of Columbus has more registered Democrats, surrounding cities such as Powell and Hilliard have more registered Republicans, according to data gathered for this analysis. While some might be quick to attribute the liberal lean of Columbus voters to factors such as higher education rates, with OSU in the area, Asher said he thinks the college experience is more impactful. After all, the city of Columbus is home to more than 100,000 registered Democratic voters, compared to  the more than 60,000 registered Republicans.

“Education doesn’t automatically predict party loyalty or party affiliation,” he said. “When you’re at Ohio State and seeing a much different world that you might see in (other places) … You start thinking, ‘There is a world beyond what I’m comfortable or familiar with.’ And I think that is the more significant impact.”

A plurality of registered Republicans in Franklin County were born between 1952 and 1962. Alternatively, the Democratic Party in Columbus finds the a plurality of its members are of individuals born between 1952 and 1959 and between 1979 and 1989.

Columbus suburb, Westerville, is dominated by registered Republican voters born in 1947 to 1960, but registered voters born in 1989 to 1997 are virtually non-existent. The Democratic Party is dominated by registered voters born in 1950 to 1960 and 1972 to 1983, but like the Republican Party, takes a serious drop off with voters born in 1989 to 1997.

In Westerville, however, registered millennials still skew Democrat.

Millennials in Westerville make up about 21 percent of the registered voters population between ages 19 and 71. Additionally, millennials account for about 21 percent of registered voters in Dublin and roughly 22 percent of Gahanna.

Similar to Westerville, New Albany has more registered Republican voters than Democratic voters by a substantial margin. Unlike Westerville, however, there are more millennials registered as Republican than Democrats.

Looking back, the overall political climate in Ohio is mainly conservative, Asher said. The Lantern’s data, on the other hand, shows that Franklin County tells a different story. It’s dominated by Democratic-registered voters, and that held true in the 2016 presidential election when Franklin voted in favor of Clinton.

In the 2012 presidential election between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama, more voters born between 1986 and 1994 were registered Democrats, Lantern analysis showed.

“Ohio, and Franklin County too, is pretty evenly split, even though most people consider Columbus city to be primarily Democratic,” Asher said. “Depending on the generation of voters it can always be construed as one way or the other.”

 

Up for grabs

As for Franklin County and Ohio compared to the rest of the country, Asher believes, politically, Franklin County is unlike anywhere else. States like Georgia are experiencing a political composition change due to the population change in large cities such as Atlanta, he said. Franklin County, however, isn’t having this impact on Ohio.

“Think about it this way; let’s say that this election — Trump vs. Clinton — that Hillary manages to win the Ohio vote 60 to 40,” Asher said. “Well, that’s historically the election right there. Statistically and historically no presidential candidate has gone on to win without first securing the Ohio vote. That little 60-40 split is all that candidate needs.”

Though Franklin County, as a whole, voted for Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, voter-registration data for surrounding cities show a different story. Columbus is dominated by registered Democratic voters, and wealthier areas that surround Columbus were found to have more registered Republican voters. Debbie Johnson, mayor of Upper Arlington, said issues regarding the economy are the most important to her when voting because of events that shaped her and her parents’ voting ideologies.

“I think part of it is we are nearing retirement,” she said. “We’ve gone through recessions, my parents went through the Depression so we kind of have that history. We’ve seen those ups and downs and what it can do to the country and to communities.”

Johnson added that many social issues need a stable economy in order to find a solution.

“To me, if you are not sound, economically, then some social issues also can’t get done.”

Though Indeep Janda, a second-year in French, said economic issues are important to her. The fact that she isn’t making much money as a college student is the key factor in while she feels more strongly about social issues. Instead of issues regarding the economy, she said she finds issues like climate change and social justice to be most important to her when voting. Like many other millennials, Janda said she wasn’t excited about either options for the presidentcy. She was previously a Bernie Sanders supporter during the primary.

In addition to social justice issues, Greg LeVay, a second-year in actuarial science and German, ranked freedom of speech as one of his top issues when voting.

“You have a voice … You (should) be able to speak your mind and not care what other people think of you and stand firm on your beliefs,” LeVay said.

But then how does one determine how they should vote? What makes a young person shape their ideas and standards to identify with the voting patterns of one party or the other? Asher said the answer cannot be singularly attributed to  one thing, such as how you are raised, where you live or what news channel is most on in your home. Instead it depends on one’s entire life experiences as a whole.

“I think your generation is sort of apolitical: not that engaged by politics, not that aggressive in seeking information about politics,” Asher said. “You know, I think (millennials are), at one level, just by sheer number of years in school, the most educated, but least informed about politics.”

But could it be that millennials are just a different kind of political?

“I would say, that if we asked, about a third of our students would identify as libertarian. So the language we would use would be they are socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” Asher said.

But in a two-party system, how does that play out in the long term?

“So if you’re socially liberal and fiscally conservative then, tell me, who do you vote for?” He asked.

As the most educated generation grows in age, it remains to be seen how future elections pan out. This past election proved that the millennial generation can by no means be classified, at least in Franklin County, as completely complacent, or that the majority of millennials lean one way or the other. The millennial vote will only become more prominent and louder as more people come of voting age and throw their own experiences into the mix of culture, morals and sociality within the brackets of the voting booths across America.

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