the new young Americans’ survey from Harvard

Yesterday, our friends at the Harvard Institute of Politics released their spring poll of 18-29-year olds. Here are some findings that especially interested me:

Conservatives will see some openings. A narrow majority of young people approve of Obama’s job performance, but majorities oppose his performance on each specific issue that was tested, especially the federal budget deficit. Some respondents may think the president is too conservative, or ineffective at achieving liberal ends. That is probably the case with gun control, which they favor although they disapprove of Obama’s performance. However, those who believe that tax cuts stimulate economic growth outnumber those who disagree by two-to-one. Those who think government spending increases growth are outnumbered by those who disagree.  Those who favor more parental choice in schools outnumber those who don’t believe that choice would help the educational system. The sample is very evenly split on climate change: 29% in favor of government action, 26% against, with the rest unsure. Asked whether “homosexual relationships are morally wrong,” 27% agree and 31% are unwilling or unable to say, for a total of 58%.

Just 16% favor affirmative action. Twenty-four percent think it has affected them negatively in their school or workplace. Twelve percent think it has benefited them. We know from a different survey that more than half of White Millennials believe discrimination against Whites “has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” I think there is an under-explored and important issue about young White people who are hostile to some of the traditional planks of the civil rights movement.

On the other hand, 42% support a government-guaranteed right to health care. Just one quarter think recent immigration has harmed the US. More respondents think the government should spend more to reduce poverty than disagree with that idea, although the plurality is unsure.

Election-Day Registration (EDR)–i.e., being allowed to register the same day you vote–has been found to boost youth turnout. In the IOP poll, 60% of young adults favor this reform if they are simply asked about it. But support plummets to 35% (with 44% not sure) if instead they are asked, “Some people say that Same-Day Registration … reduces the barriers to voting; other people say that Same-Day Registration increases voter fraud. Based on what you know now, do you support or oppose Same-Day Registration?” In other words, support for this reform is very soft; concerns about fraud can easily be activated.

Pluralities of young Americans think that politics is relevant and that political involvement does have tangible results, although a lot them are unsure. In our own focus group research, we often find respondents waver on these issues. Asked whether voting makes a difference, for example, an individual may give a short monologue that drifts between yes and no and then back again, passing by way of such ideas as “no, but you should do it anyway,” and “yes, but only if other people do it, too.” A survey forces a choice, which is helpful in some ways but obscures the deep ambivalence a lot of people feel.

Thirty-one percent say that “working in some form of public service is appealing to me,” but only 35% think that “running for office is an honorable thing to do” (with 46% unsure). Forty-seven percent think that politics is no longer able to meet our country’s challenges, and only 16% disagree with that.

One in five say that their previous experiences with politics have left them disappointed. Large majorities distrust all the major institutions tested–from the presidency to Wall Street and the UN–with the exception of the US military, which has 54% trust.

About 11% identify with the Tea Party, 5% say they would very likely participate with Organizing for Action (after it is defined for them), and 14% contributed to an online political discussion or blog. I’d emphasize that these are all rare forms of engagement.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.