What do young voters want in a presidential candidate this election? Trust, leadership, an evolving foreign policy stance, someone who reaffirms faith in the criminal justice system and more, according to pollster and “millennial whisperer,” John Della Volpe.
For years, Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, has worked to shed light on the way young Americans vote. Every semester, Della Volpe steers a public opinion survey group of Harvard students who create, field and report their findings on the attitudes of the millennial generation in the U.S. Over the years, the survey accurately predicted youth voter turnout, charted generational shifts in attitude on foreign policy, and tracked both pre-9/11 and post-9/11 attitudes.
In a recent interview with “Power Players,” in conjunction with the release of the Spring 2015 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll, the largest poll of young people in America. Della Volpe and Harvard student Ellen Robo shared some of their notable recent findings, like whether or not the GOP has a fighting chance for winning over young voters despite a deep-seeded branding problem (Spoiler: It’s not a “yes” or “no” answer). Here are the top seven takeaways:
1. Millennials are becoming more conservative.
Eighteen- to 24-year-olds have become slightly more Republican, according to the new poll.
“They're certainly not Republican over Democrat, but they are more conservative than there older brothers and sisters,” Robo said. “55 percent of the age group we've looked at wants a Democratic president in 2016, as compared to 40 percent for a Republican president.”
In years past, exit polling of the same age demographic showed smaller margins of Republican support. In 2008, exit polls showed support for Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain at 32 percent, and in 2012 that number climbed to 37 percent for Mitt Romney. President Obama clinched 56 percent and 50 percent of the millenials polled for the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively.
2. But they don’t call them Republicans just yet.
The number of young people that identify ideologically as conservatives might be rising, but those millennials don’t necessarily want to be known as Republicans.“The Republican numbers are much smaller than the number of people who identify as conservatives within this age bracket,” Robo said.
3. They support boots on the ground to fight ISIS.
A decade after a majority of young people polled favored pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly the same percentage -- almost 60 percent -- now say they support boots on the ground in those countries to combat ISIS, including a majority of Democrats, as well as Republicans.
“It goes a long way when [millennials] see beheadings on social media and video,” Della Volpe said.
4. They don’t have faith in the criminal justice system.
On shifting viewpoints within the millennial generation, Della Volpe named a handful of issues that the survey found young voters are evolving on, such as foreign policy, energy, and the environment. On domestic issues, Della Volpe notably took stock of changing attitudes “certainly on criminal justice.”
“About half [of millennials] have little-to-no faith in the criminal justice system, and the numbers among African-Americans and black Americans is two-thirds,” he said.
5. They want someone with vision.
For a generation that’s dedicated “many, many, many years, many hours a month to making this country a better place through service,” Della Volpe said that millennial voters are attracted to candidates who share those values.“What they're looking for is elected officials, candidates and campaigns that exhibit that kind of trust and leadership and vision that will inspire them,” he said.
6. They like Ben Carson in early polling of the GOP field.
The institute’s polling showed Dr. Ben Carson as the Republican candidate on top, but not by much -- and Sen. Rand Paul also doing well.“Young Republicans are looking to modernize the Republican brand," Della Volpe said. "They're just not buying what traditional Republicans in Washington are selling.”
7. Bottom line: Do Republicans stand a chance winning over millennial voters?
“Depends upon your definition of a chance,” Della Volpe said. “I don't think they stand a chance of outright winning the generation, but they stand a chance at making it competitive, and to the degree to which they can keep the Democratic nominee in the high-to-mid-50s, I think that has a chance to open the map in very compelling ways nationally.”