The Most Important Poll You Didn’t See

April 26, 2016 2:55 pm

You’re here at TPM. So you’re probably a political junkie. You’ve undoubtedly seen a lot of horse race polls. Sanders is more popular than Hillary. Trump is historically unpopular. Both candidates consistently beat Trump and Cruz. But Sanders consistently does so by greater margins. All valuable information if you know how to interpret it. But the Harvard Institute of Politics just released a detailed poll on the opinions of millennial voters, particularly voters between 18 and 29 years of age. The results are a very, very big deal.

Here’s what the poll shows.

First, millennials map, in a more exaggerated form, the views of the general public on the top candidates. They have very favorable impressions of Bernie Sanders (54/31); fairly unfavorable impressions of Hillary Clinton (37/53) and extremely unfavorable impressions of Donald Trump (17/74.)

So what about Clinton’s problem with millennials? Well, in a race against Donald Trump it basically disappears. Among 18 to 29 year olds, Clinton beats Trump 61% to 25% to 14% undecided/”don’t know”. As we’ve discussed numerous times, what happens in a primary gives you very little insight into what happens in a general election. The dynamics are fundamentally different, often at odds with each other.

But deeper in the numbers are more telling results.

In Spring of 2015, this age group wanted the Democratic party to win the next presidential election by 15 points (55% to 40%). Now, a year later, that spread has increased to 28 points (61% to 32%). Notably, this is irrespective of candidates. It’s Democrat versus Republican. Also for the first time in 5 years the number of self-identified Democrats is higher than self-identified independents. Dem 40%; Indy 36%, GOP 22%.

The poll results also include various questions that might be taken as measures of liberal politics. They’re all higher this year than they were in 2015 or 2013.

Take all that together and you come away with pretty clear evidence that over the course of the Democratic primary young voters have become more attached to progressive politics and the Democratic party. One read of this is that the primary process itself – as divisive as it has sometimes seemed – has deepened young voters’ identification with the Democratic party.

To a great degree, that seems to be the case. But there are other potential factors and potential explanations. The trend on the issues, if not the party identification front, has been moving in a more liberal direction over the last four years. That predates this Clinton v Sanders match up. Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP primary process are so toxic (as represented in these poll numbers) that they must themselves be deepening young voters’ partisan attachment to the Democratic party. In other words, we don’t know if Democratic partisan identification is increasing while the primary process is unfolding or because of the primary process itself. It’s probably some of both.

There’s a lot of fascinating information in this poll – about the criminal justice system, education, views about capitalism and socialism. I’ve focused mainly on what’s relevant to the current presidential race. The overarching results on that front are pretty clear. Despite press commentary about both parties being deeply divided and millennials fleeing the Democratic brand, these results tell a very different story: Millennials aren’t just liberal. They’re getting more liberal. And rather than being liberal on policy issues but alienated from the Democratic party, they’re actually become significantly more identified with the Democratic party during this primary process. Are they wild about Hillary Clinton? No, they’re not. But in a general election context, liberal political views and the importance of the Democrats winning the 2016 election seems to more than offset that disaffection.

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