Why Do the Young Support Obama?

Why Do the Young Support Obama? October 5, 2010

In yesterday’s post I mentioned a recent Gallup poll that supplies helpful details on those who support Obama and those who do not — and I examined whether the results are evidence that blacks approve of the President because of the color of his skin.  Today I want to consider a different issue – why the young approve of Obama.  Here are the results of the survey:

Since the results are jumbled together, let’s pull them out according to category:

AGE: 18- to 29-year-olds at 57%, 30- to 49-year-olds at 45%, 50- to 64-year-olds at 44%, and 65-year-olds and above at 35%.

INCOME: Monthly income under $2000 at 51%, from $2000-$4999 at 45%, from $7500 and above at 44%, from $5000-$7499 at 43%.

EDUCATION: Post-graduate education at 53%, college graduate only at 46%, some college 45%, high school or less at 42%.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: Liberal at 75%, moderate at 54%, and conservative at 23%.

PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat at 79%, Independent at 40%, and Republican at 12%.

GEOGRAPHY: East 52%, West and Midwest 45%, South at 41%.

GENERAL DEMOGRAPHIC: Unmarried: 53%, Women: 47%, Men 43%, Married 39%.

Apart (predictably) from minorities, Democrats and liberals, two of the demographic groups with the highest rate of approval are young voters (18-29 years old) and those with postgraduate degrees, at 57% and 53% respectively.  There are two questions here:

(1) Does the higher support for Obama amongst younger voters reflects a generational difference (the younger generation is, and will remain, basically different from the older generation, maintaining its more liberal predilections) or an aging difference (this younger generation, like those before it, will grow more conservative as it ages)?

(2) What should we make of the fact that those with a post-graduate education support Obama at a higher rate (not particularly high, at 53%, but 8 points higher than the average) than those with only an undergraduate degree? Does this reflect on the intelligence of the voter (the more intelligent better understand Obama and why his policies are best) or the ideology of the universities (those with postgraduate education are more exposed to the prevailing liberal ideology in academia)?

I will discuss the second question tomorrow.  As to the first, it would certainly be good news for Democrats — and terrible news for Republicans — if the higher rates of approval amongst younger voters indicated some sort of sea change.  Perhaps those who are young now have gotten wise to the ways of conservatives and Republicans, and they will maintain their strong predilection for liberals and Democrats as they age.  Perhaps the experiences of the Clinton and Bush presidencies have left a “generational imprint” that will keep them more liberal over the whole of their lives.  In 1987, about 50% of those over 65 — the “greatest generation,” who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II — called themselves conservative.  Only 30-31% of those over 65 now — Baby Boomers, who came of age through the sixties and seventies — call themselves conservative.  So, the collective experiences of a generation matter, and the ways in which they have come, together, to interpret those experiences.

However, it is generally true that voters grow more conservative as they age on a host of issues.  The “life-stage hypothesis” claims that voters grow more conservative when they marry and have children, and have a stake in the present order of things — and then again when they begin to consider, plan for, and enjoy their retirement.  Thus surveys have consistently shown older generations to be more conservative than the younger.  Also, an interesting survey by Zogby poll in July 2009 asked people whether they believe they’ve grown more liberal or more conservative.  Here are the results:

If the respondents are accurate in their self-assessments (and there’s no good reason to doubt their word in this case), a fairly high number (around 37%) believe throughout their twenties that aging has made them more liberal.  But around 30, at the age when many are married and having children, that number begins a long slide, and by their forties about 50% of the respondents report becoming more conservative.  There is a slight curve back in the other direction around age 65, but this may just reflect the generational imprint upon Baby Boomers.

This is parallel to the question, important in Christian circles, of whether young people attending church at lower rates spells doom for the church, or whether their habits will change as they age, marry, raise children, search for meaning beyond their work, and contemplate their mortality.  In this case too, the evidence is strong that we are witnessing a life-stage effect.  As Rodney Stark said in our recent interview, younger folks have always, for as long as we have had data, gone to church at lower rates.  Many people eventually stop partying on Saturday nights, decide to raise their children in the embrace of the church, and find that the church presents a compelling vision of our lives and their meaning.

The life-stage hypothesis can be spun two ways.  Perhaps the young, not encumbered by the weight of tradition, not swayed by selfish concerns over their own property and their retirement and college savings funds, have a clearer vision of reality.  Or maybe the older have seen that the carefree days of their youth included some rather naive and impractical ideas.  In my view, responsibility and real-world experience tend to sharpen, not distort, our perceptions of what is true and what is important.

Tomorrow I will consider why those with post-graduate degrees tend to support Obama at a higher rate — not a spectacularly high rate, just 53% right now, but higher than the average and worth understanding.  Is this a compliment to Obama and liberals in general, that the more intelligent “get” that they are right?  Or is this more a reflection of the ideology that pervades the American universities, in particular the humanities and social sciences?

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