Center for American Progress

Millennial Voters Refuse to Be Left Out of This Election

Millennial Voters Refuse to Be Left Out of This Election

On the eve of Election Day 2012, our nation’s youngest voters could once again play a key role in the outcome because of their progressive ideals.

Aubrey Marks, left, helps a University of Central Florida student to register to vote in Orlando, Florida. (AP/ =John Raoux)
Aubrey Marks, left, helps a University of Central Florida student to register to vote in Orlando, Florida. (AP/ =John Raoux)

The Millennial generation is the largest (95 million compared to 78 million Baby Boomers), most diverse, and most progressive in American history.

In 2008 many in this generation of 12- to 29-year-olds played a key role in deciding who would be the next president through support at the polls and mobilizing other voters to build support. This year, with 46 million potential voters, not only are Millennials now a full quarter of the voting-age American public, but they also surpass the 39-million-strong bloc of voters older than age 65.

While the Millennials may have gotten older over the past four years, they haven’t lost their passion for all the issues that brought them to the polls in 2008—and could again play a significant role this year.

As this generation continues to play a larger role in determining who is elected to lead our country and the issues on which our leaders focus, journalists and pundits are dedicating more column inches and air time to this group of Americans—but who they are and what motivates them can get lost in the noise.

For all the effort by the media to paint this generation with a single—and often unflattering—brush, one of the features that defines the generation more than anything else is how incredibly diverse it is—and how that informs so many of the decisions it makes and the issues it fights for. 2020 will be the first presidential election in which all Millennials will be of voting age. They will total about 90 million eligible voters, will comprise nearly 40 percent of the electorate, and nearly half (44 percent) will be people of color.

This paper will discuss the makeup of the Millennial generation, the issues it cares about, the challenges it faces, and the role it will play in leading the country in the decades ahead.

Millennial demographics

In addition to being the largest generation in American history, the Millennial generation is also the most racially and ethnically diverse. As more minorities enter the electorate, policymakers will be challenged to deliver progressive and inclusive policies to satisfy the needs of all their constituents—some of whom have felt the brunt of marginalization in the past.

In terms of race and ethnicity, the share of Millennials who are people of color is greater than any previous generation. A 2010 Pew report found that minorities made up nearly 40 percent of Millennials—a similar share to Generation Xers (ages 30 to 47)—but a higher percentage when compared to the 27 percent of people of color Baby Boomers (ages 48 to 66) and 20 percent of people of color Silents (ages 67 to 87). In 2012, 43 percent of voting-age Millennials are people of color (including 19 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 5 percent Asian), while 60 percent are white. Further, by 2020—the first presidential election where all Millennials will have reached voting age—44 percent of voting-age Millennials will be people of color.

Perhaps one of the most significant projections about the demographics of the electorate, the Millennial generation, and the direction of our country in the decades ahead is that by 2050 those ages 65 and older are expected to have just reached the 40-percent-minority threshold that Millennials have already reached. Seniors have historically had higher voter-turnout rates than any other age group and accordingly have consistently been a group of voters with which candidates prioritize engaging (as seen by the time spent discussing Medicare). With Millennials now outnumbering seniors, however, the younger generation now has the potential to play a larger role at the polls.

According to research from the Center for Information and Research On Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, Millennial voters are diverse in many more ways than race—a growing number of young people of color are identifying as gay* and transgender, and the majority of Millennials support expanding rights and equality for the gay and transgender community. Additionally, though more Millennials are unaffiliated with a religious tradition compared to previous generations, most still consider themselves religious and are finding new ways to define what that means for them as they embrace more progressive positions than previous generations.

Another key aspect of this age group is its social interaction, which plays a central role in the way it participates in politics. Millennials spend more time online than any other age group, and this colors their activism and the way that candidates and advocacy organizations engage them in discussion and debate. A full 75 percent of Millennials have created a profile on social networking sites, while only 50 percent of Generation Xers, 30 percent of Baby Boomers, and 6 percent of Silents have done the same. This is why both advertisers and political campaigns are increasingly turning to social media to reach Millennials.


Higher education is becoming crucial for competing in today’s job market, and a growing number of Millennials understand the lifelong benefits of a college degree.More of them are earning college degrees, and nearly 80 percent still believe they can achieve the American Dream—but many of them know that it’s only possible through hard work and education.

While the cost of attaining a college degree has increased substantially over the past three decades, Millennials remain the most educated generation in the country’s history. Pew recently reported that more than half (54 percent) of Millennials—when they were ages 18 to 28—had attained at least some college education. Each previous generation had lower levels of higher education, with 49 percent of Gen Xers, 36 percent of Boomers, 24 percent of the Silent generation obtaining at least some college education when they were those ages. Additionally, Millennials are also more likely to have completed high school and—similar to the generation before them—are continuing the trend of women outpacing men in graduating from or attending college.

But just as important as race, sexual orientation, education level, and social interaction are the beliefs and attitudes that Millenials hold about the major issues our country faces and the best ways to address them. We details these positions held by many Millennials below.

Attitudes and values

Social issues

The majority of Millennial voters hold progressive views on social issues. From supporting hard-working undocumented immigrants to touting equality for young gay and transgender Americans, this generation embraces a brand of politics that is inclusive and supportive—one that unifies and believes America is better when people work together.

Of the 21 core values and beliefs that a majority of young Americans said they support, only four were classified as conservative, according to research conducted by the Center for American Progress. Some of the key findings about Millennials’ values and beliefs include:

  • 64 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they support the DREAM Act, a bill to provide a pathway to legal status for eligible young people who were brought here as children and who complete high school and some college or military service
  • 84 percent agree that “We should do everything we can to make sure that people who want to use prescription birth control have affordable access to it and that cost is not an obstacle”
  • 62 percent of young people favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married

With the media so often portraying religion and progressivism as opposites, it’s important to note that for Millennials, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While fewer young Americans view their faith as the single path to salvation than do older generations, Millennials are more open to multiple ways of interpreting their religion. Three-quarters of young people said there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, according to aPew survey, compared with 67 percent of affiliated adults (ages 30 and older). For those who are young and religiously affiliated, for example, almost twice as many (65 percent) say that society should accept the gay and transgender community, compared to those in the Baby Boomer generation and older (35 percent).

These numbers reaffirm the widely held belief that young people are more progressive than older generations, especially when compared to the larger population. How much impact this has on public policy and the future of the country depends entirely upon how politically active and engaged Millennials are and how much political candidates and elected leaders engage with and respond to Millennials.

The core values shared by Millennials undoubtedly impacts the way they view government, particularly on issues such as abortion, contraceptives, same-sex marriage, and immigration—often considered wedge or “hot” button issues. But these progressive values don’t mean a strict allegiance to one party. Though Millennials have more confidence in the government’s ability to solve both social and economic issues, it also wants to see a more efficient and effective government that helps bring the solutions our country needs.

Economy and support for government

When compared to older generations, Millennials place more faith in the government to deal with the issues it cares about most, including the economy, higher-education reform, and income inequality. Research by the Center for American Progress, in a report titled “The Generation Gap on Government,” shows that Millennials are the generation most likely to reverse the trend of distrust in government—they actually want a strong government to handle the economy. More than 60 percent of Millennials, compared to just 46 percent of older voters, believe “we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems.” Fifty percent of Millennials say government should do more to solve problems, while only one-third of non-Millennials share that view. And 44 percent of Millennials voice confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve problems—14 percent more than do older generations.

While it’s true that government can’t solve every problem, Millennials believe the government would be most effective at intervening in economic issues such as closing the wealth gap, bolstering the workforce, investing in education, and addressing soaring college costs:

  • 80 percent agree that “government investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth,” compared to 6 percent who disagree
  • 73 percent of college-age Millennials ages 18 to 24 agree that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy”
  • 72 percent favor “increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $1 million a year”
  • 69 percent agree that “the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor”
  • 75 percent of Millennials are more likely to call for increased government involvement in improving public schools, compared to 54 percent on non-Millennials.
  • 73 percent of Millennials are more supportive of governmental involvement in making college more affordable, in contrast to 56 percent of other segments of the population

A major part of why Millennials are more in favor of government than their older counterparts can be attributed to the shift in demographics—particularly a jump in young Hispanics, who typically favor government intervention. Since the current administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy—which will delay the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible youth and permit them to work legally in the United States—many mixed-status families have first-hand experience with the positive impact the government can have on a community. Elected officials, however, shouldn’t take Millennials’ progovernment stance for granted. Instead they should see Millennials’ view of government—as having a place in broadening people’s access to opportunity—as a chance to not only engage and mobilize but also to demonstrate that when young people make an investment in democracy, they get returns.

Engagement and activism

The ability of a generation to change the country and the policies it enacts is rooted in its political engagement and activism. As previously noted, one of the defining characteristics of Millennials is their diversity, with nearly one in two being people of color. It is because of this diversity that this generation will likely be the one to take up the torch of fighting for greater equality—for themselves and for other communities that have been historically marginalized and unable to pursue the opportunities that make the American Dream possible. Millennials will take up these fights using new forms of activism and organizing tools, with more and more of everyday life moves online, as we detail below.
Additionally, as seen above, Millennials are especially progressive on social issues and are particularly engaged and vocal on these issues. A recent study of first-year college students by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that:

  • 71.3 percent said they supported gay and lesbian couples’ right to get married. That’s a stark contrast with a poll from last fall of the general public that only showed 46 percent support for marriage equality.
  • 57 percent of students do not believe undocumented immigrants should be denied access to public education. Compared to a 2010 Gallup poll that showed support for the DREAM Act among voters older than age 34 as just more than half of those polled and still firmly divided along partisan lines, this result show increasing recognition and support for undocumented peers.
  • 60.7 percent of freshmen think abortion should be kept legal. This is an even clearer example of the difference between young people and general public, which has grown less supportive of a woman’s right to choose in recent years.

More than just highlighting the electoral potential of this demographic, the 2008 election showed how engaged young people are with their communities on issues that impact them. Nearly one in five Millennials are highly engaged in “service, community-change, and political activities,” according to a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The study, which looks at Millennials’ political and civic participation in 2008 and 2010, also found that 17.9 percent of Millennials were actively focused on the election and candidates, and were discussing politics frequently and voting on Election Day.

While Millennials are taking active roles in organizing and advocacy on a number of issues, there remains much untapped potential among these young Americans. But the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement study found that when you directly engage young people and ask them to participate, they do. In each new election cycle, more politicians are recognizing and acting on this fact. With 46 million young people ages 18 to 29 years old eligible to vote (compared to the 39 million seniors who are eligible to vote), it comes as no surprise that more politicians are pivoting toward this undermobilized demographic.

Aside from sheer volume—18- to 29-year-olds now make up 24 percent of the voting eligible population—much of the past four decades of presidential cycles has shown a tepid rise in youth turnout. From 1972 to 2000 the youth turnout rate declined by 16 percentage points, but the 2004 election marked the beginning of a comeback for youth participation, with turnout soaring by 11 percentage points. The trajectory has been ticking upward ever since.

  • 40 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 turned out in 2000, compared to 65 percent of those 30 and older
  • 49 percent of young people, compared to 68 percent of those 30 and older, turned out in 2004
  • 51 percent of young people turned out in 2008, marking the third-highest youth turnout rate since the voting age was lowered to 18

While youth turnout has nudged up, turnout among older voters has relatively flatlined.

Each of the past three presidential election cycles, more young people are casting votes, with 15 million casting their ballots in the 2000 general election and 20 million in the 2004 presidential election, a surge of more than 5 million. But it was the 2008 presidential election that really marked the turning point in youth participation: Out of 41 million eligible voters, 22.4 million showed up at the polls. While this was an increase of 2 million votes cast compared to 2004 and more than 6.5 million from 2000, the real impact was even larger, with so many—some too young to vote—playing an active role in get-out-the-vote efforts across the country. Additionally, each election cycle, Millennials have also made up more of the electorate: Approximately 14 percent of votes cast 2000 were by young people, and that number continued to climb in 2004 (16 percent) and 2008 (17 percent).

Even during midterm election season, when expectations are lowest for overall turnout, the trend for youth voter turnout actually remained relatively stable in the past three cycles, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement:

  • 22 percent of young people turned out in 2002
  • 25 percent of young people voted 2006
  • 24 percent of Millennials (ages 18 to 29) turned out in 2010

One interesting figure that highlights the diversity of Millennials—specifically in the context of political participation—is that in 2010, as in 2008, young African Americans led the way in youth voter turnout. During the 2010 midterm elections, when turnout is typically far lower, young African Americans voted at a rate of 27.5 percent, compared to 24.9 percent of young whites, 17.7 percent of, and 17.6 of young Latinos. Turnout among white youth actually declined more than that of any other race or ethnicity between 2006 and 2010.

For all the pundits who would write off this generation and the role it will play in elections and the political process, Millennials are engaged in varied and sometime nontraditional ways. In fact, as many as three-quarters of young people cling on to various rungs of political engagement:

  • 21 percent of young people voted and were broadly engaged in the political process
  • 18 percent focused narrowly on political activism and voting
  • 14 percent registered to vote in 2010 but weren’t mobilized to hit the polls and led to other ladders of engagement
  • 13 percent intensely followed and commented on politics online but missed opportunities to vote or take direct action

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement study found, however, that the remaining 23 percent of Millennials were not engaged at all, which presents a clear example of untapped potential for elected officials. This diversified approach to civic action demonstrates that young people are engaged but are in many ways undermobilized and just starting to appreciate their influence in political participation; many have simply been politically marginalized due to lack of education or privilege. The majority of young people who were alienated from politics only held a high school diploma, and notable majorities were people of color.

Diversity, consistent turnout, and growing voter eligibility mean Millennials are the best chance to make progress on the issues that will keep our country moving forward. But an investment in mobilizing the potential of this powerful voting bloc is key. The Millennial generation can be a powerful contender for the electorate if politicians seize opportunities to reaffirm young people’s belief in bigger and better government; work to close gaps in income, racial, and education disparities; and consistently engage in mobilizing around issues that matter most to young people. But politicians won’t succeed at driving young people to the polls if they fail to recognize one crucial element when it comes to civic engagement: Millennials do things differently.

For all the pessimistic predictions and dismissing of Millennials’ impact in this election, nearly 70 percent say it is extremely or very likely they will personally vote—up from about 60 percent in July. What’s more, 72.6 percent of young people believe they have the power to change things in this country. There should be no mistake: Millennials will play a critical role in deciding the outcome on November 6.


Plenty has been said and written in the weeks leading up to the election about whether Millennials will turn out to vote and which candidate they’ll be supporting. But little of that coverage takes a deeper look at what is motivating this generation and the many ways beyond voting that the generation is making a difference in its communities. Millennials face real challenges and understand that the future is uncertain, but as the most diverse and best-educated generation the country has ever seen, they are driven, confident, and ready to work for better policies and a more progressive society.

Anne Johnson is the Director of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.

*In this column, we use gay as an umbrella term for those who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual.

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Anne Johnson

Executive Director, Generation Progress