CHICAGO — This generation of young Americans has been called many things, from civic-minded to "entitled." But fiscally conservative?
That's a new one, and it just might have an impact on the presidential election.
Listen to Caroline Winsett, a senior at DePaul University, who considers herself fairly socially liberal but says being fiscally conservative matters most right now.
"Ultimately, I'm voting with my pocketbook," says Winsett, a 22-year-old political science major who's president of the DePaul student body. She recently cast an absentee ballot for Republican Mitt Romney in her home state of Tennessee.
To be clear, polls show that President Barack Obama remains the favorite among 18- to 29-year-old registered voters, as he was in 2008. No one thinks the majority of young voters will support Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in the Nov. 6 election.
But the polls also hint at a "schism" between those who weren't old enough to vote in 2008 and their older twentysomething counterparts, says John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
In one poll, for instance, he found that 42 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds identified as "conservative," compared with just over one-third who said they were "liberal." By comparison, those proportions were nearly flipped for 22- to 24-year-olds: 39 percent said they were "liberal," and a third called themselves "conservative." It was much the same for older twentysomethings.
Tina Wells, head of Buzz Marketing, an agency that tracks the attitudes of young people, has noticed this shift to the right. Her own researchers have found that the youngest adults are much more likely to label themselves "conservative," "moderate" or "independent" than older millennials, a term for young adults who've entered adulthood in the new millennium.
Like a lot of youth experts, Wells thinks it has to do with one thing: the economy.
Suddenly, she says, the "entitled generation," those who grew up in more prosperous times and were seen as having ridiculously high expectations for jobs and standard of living, was no more.
"That bubble burst the minute the economy started tanking, and they were the `unemployed generation,'" Wells says. "They had to grow up."
She says the recession had a particularly profound effect on the political attitudes of younger millennials, who've come of age as the adults who preceded them have lost homes, jobs and retirement funds. It has set a decidedly grimmer tone as their age group also has faced the highest unemployment rate of any age bracket, while many others have had to take jobs below their qualifications.
"We heard about how our parents' bank accounts were shrinking and how money that was there one day was gone the next," says Jessie Wurzer, a 17-year-old in Fairport, N.Y.
She says it's left her and her peers "with a lingering anxiety about money and finances in general."
They worry about how they'll afford college, whether Social Security will be there when they're ready to retire and how the national deficit will affect them. That's why Wurzer now calls herself a "fiscal conservative."
At the same time, however, she considers herself a moderate on social issues, including gay marriage and abortion. So in traditional political terms, this generation is hard to peg.
Unemployment is now the top concern among young people, says Deborah Maue, vice president at TRU, a Chicago-based research company that specializes in tweens, teens and young adults. Just after the 2008 election, unemployment ranked fifth, behind such issues as education and health care.
But, Maue, says this is a generation that's also passionately "hands off" on social issues. TRU's research also has found that teens are increasingly uninterested in organized religion.
"They're all about individuality and accepting people as individuals," says Maue, who leads the TRU Enrollment Insights Program for higher education professionals.
For some young people, an interest in individual freedom has sent them to the Libertarian party. Rachel Palermo, a 19-year-old in Northfield, Minn., is one of them.
"Our loss of trust may be why we have the mentality that the economy would be best with less intervention" says Palermo, a sophomore at St. Olaf College. She plans to vote for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
"Even though politician after politician promises they'll improve the economy, they have failed, and we are going to suffer from it."
Republicans also have seen an opportunity here.
In 2008, Republican pollster Kristen Soltis says she watched disappointedly as her party "really let the youth vote go."
This election, that hasn't been the case. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has spent time campaigning on college campuses. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has done the same for the Romney-Ryan ticket in that state.
Soltis also notes that, last summer, during a recall election in Wisconsin, a slight majority of voters in the 18- to 24-year-old age bracket cast a ballot to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office.
"This election is such a huge opportunity for Republicans," says Soltis, who, at age 28, is also a member of the millennial generation.
But it remains to be seen whether Republicans can win over these young voters on social issues, especially when the economy rebounds.
"Either the party will have to persuade more young people or the party will adapt. I don't necessarily know which way that's going to go yet," Soltis says.
Winsett, the DePaul senior, says Republicans would be wise to "shift back to the center" to attract more young people.
Brady Meixell, a freshman at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, agrees.
"People in my age group who would typically be Republicans, and are very fiscally conservative, are disenchanted with the social conservatism of the GOP and don't exactly know where to turn," says Meixell, who's 18 and plans to vote for Obama.
He says Obama has won many students over with college loan reforms and with his health care plan, which allows young people to stay on their parents' insurance into early adulthood.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Alex Avdakov describes himself as conservative on social issues such as abortion and welfare. But his vote will be driven by what amounts to fiscal conservatism: a concern about government spending.
He plans to vote for Obama because he strongly opposes Romney's plan for military spending, "especially when his entire campaign is centered around reducing the deficit," says Avdakov, a senior at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
These mixed emotions help explain why this election is generating much less excitement on college campuses than there was in 2008.
"They're not fully committed to Obama. But they're not fully committed to Romney either," says Della Volpe, the pollster from Harvard.
Or perhaps they're not fully committed to the political process as a whole, but are turned off, as many young people note, by partisan bickering and gridlock.
A recent TRU poll found that more young people answered "don't know" or "don't care" when asked if they were liberal, moderate or conservative.
Six months after the 2008 election, 13 percent of teens and twentysomethings gave that answer. In a recent poll, that "don't know/don't' care" number rose to 27 percent for the entire age group – and to 36 percent for teens.
That could be bad news for those hoping to build on the last election's banner youth vote numbers. But Maue, at TRU, doesn't necessarily think it means they're disengaged.
"It may mean they're undecided," she says. "So it could go either way."
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