Millennials more conservative than you may think

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Story highlights

  • Americans are more politically polarized, and millennials may be leading the trend
  • "They are not the extremely liberal and Democrat generation that many anticipated," expert says

(CNN)It might be time to rethink the millennial voter.

A new paper suggests that Americans are more politically polarized now than they've been in the past 46 years, and millennials are guiding this trend.
The young adults, who were born between 1980 and 1994, are currently more politically polarized than Generation Xers and Baby Boomers, according to the paper, which was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on Wednesday.
Additionally, millennials are more likely to identify as conservative than either Generation Xers or Baby Boomers were at the same age, said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the paper.
"High school seniors are more likely to identify as political conservatives now compared to 10 years ago. Most surprising, more identify as conservatives now compared to the 1980s, presumably the era of the young conservative, such as the character Alex P. Keaton in the 1980s show 'Family Ties.' That goes against the common view of millennials as very liberal," said Twenge, author of the book about millennials titled "Generation Me."
"So the current view of millennials as liberals might be due to their age -- young people are more likely to be liberal. But if you compare young people now to young people in previous decades, those now are more conservative," she said.

More politically polarized than ever

The new paper reviewed data on about 10 million American adults, collected from 1970 to 2015 as part of three separate surveys: the national Monitoring the Future study, the Higher Education Research Institute's American Freshman survey, and the General Social Survey.
The researchers examined and analyzed data from each survey, which included respondents' political party affiliations. They compared millennials' responses with those from Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.
The researchers discovered that overall twice as many adults had "extreme" political identifications in the 2010s compared to in the 1970s.
For instance, 1.6% of Americans identified as "extremely liberal" in 1972 compared to 3.7% in 2014. About 2.4% of Americans identified as "extremely conservative" in 1972 compared to 4.2% in 2014, according to the new paper.
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"We were not really sure what to expect because [separate] research looking at Americans' responses to specific issues -- such as, government spending, taxes, military -- consistently shows that Americans are not polarized on the vast majority of the issues," said Ryne Sherman, associate professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and a co-author of the study.
"However, our research does show increasing polarization in terms of political identification," he said. "This is intriguing because it suggests that Americans are becoming increasingly divided over a relatively small number of differences."
Why have American adults shifted over time to becoming more polarized? Follow-up research is needed to find a definite answer, but there are some correlating factors, Sherman said.
"Small differences between groups can give rise to polarization as leaders repeatedly emphasize these small differences and members rally around them," Sherman said.
For instance, Twenge said, "We know from other research that millennials are more supportive of LGBT rights, gender equality and racial equality compared to previous generations. Given that, it suggests that millennial conservatives may be focusing on issues other than these, for example, economic issues, gun rights."
A focus on these issues might be perpetuated in the media, Sherman added.
"The rise of 24-hour news networks, the internet, and social media allows even greater control over the kinds of information, and from who we access information, making these social identity processes even more powerful," he said. "Interestingly, millennials spent nearly their entire lives with 24-hour news and the internet. Thus, this group has been most exposed to the 'echo chamber' sort of effect."

Millennials, as compared to Generation Xers and Baby Boomers

The data showed that millennials are the most polarized political group that the United States has seen in some time, given their age, Sherman said.
Furthermore, "they are not the extremely liberal and Democrat generation that many anticipated," he said, as the researchers found that the polarization that has emerged in the millennial generation may be driven by conservatives.
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The data showed that, as entering college students, 23% of millennials identified as leaning far right, compared to 17% of Baby Boomers and 22% of Generation Xers.
Less than half -- 47% -- of millennials identified as "middle-of-the-road," compared to 50% of Baby Boomers and more than half -- 53% -- of Generation Xers.
Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers both as the United States' largest living generation and as the largest generation in the American electorate.
The upcoming presidential election in November just might be the last dominated by Baby Boomers and previous generations, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the nation's Census Bureau, which was released last month.
As of July, some 126 million millennial and Generation X adults were eligible to vote, making up 56% of the country's eligible voters, compared to only 98 million of Baby Boomers and adults from prior generations, who make up 44% of voters, according to the Pew analysis.

'No generation ... is in fact politically homogeneous'

However, other experts argue that the new paper may not necessarily show the political attitudes of millennials to greatly differ from other generations at the same age.
The paper concludes that the millennial generation is relatively conservative in part because the temporal starting point of the data analysis is the early and mid-1970s, said David Hopkins, assistant professor of political science at Boston College, who was not involved in the paper.
"At that particular time, however, young people were especially unlikely to identify as Republicans or conservatives because of the short-term effects of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. If we exclude the 1970s from the analysis, it looks by my reading of the tables and figures as if the political attitudes of the young have remained fairly stable over time, and in some respects they have liberalized somewhat," Hopkins said about the new paper.
"I do think it's possible that some people have overstated the degree to which millennials are to the ideological left of older voters," he said. "I think this paper helps to confirm that the ideological polarization of elites has had a measurable effect on the attitudes of young voters, and that no generation — including the millennial generation — is in fact politically homogeneous."
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Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, who was not involved in the new paper, also pointed out how millennial voters may be influenced by the era in which they were born.
"If you look at the cohort of young voters who came of age during George W. Bush's presidency, they're mostly Democrats, which makes sense as Bush was a highly unpopular Republican. The young voters who came of age during Obama's presidency are more split, which makes sense because Obama is neither popular nor unpopular; he has an approval of about 50%," Gelman said.
"Political and partisan polarization in the United States has increased a lot in recent decades; this is well known and there are many explanations for it but no single story," he said. "The parties are more ideological than they used to be."

The rise of the Independent

Along with becoming more divided, the data exposed a large and ongoing shift in American adults' political affiliations becoming increasingly independent.
In 1989, only about 30% of adults identified as independent, but by 2014 that number rose to about 46%.
"Although these differences may seem small, when we consider these on the scale of 240 million adults in the United States we are talking about a large number of people," Sherman said.
"A change in 2% is close to 5 million. ... Moreover, 13 of the 46 elections in United States history, in which we have the popular vote recorded, were decided by less than 4% of the vote."
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Additionally, 59% of millennials identify as being politically independent, which "in my view, is the most impactful for politics. Political parties are going to find it more and more difficult to reach millennial voters," Twenge said.
For that reason, Sherman said that it's important to continue conducting this research.
"Political attitudes reflect American culture and values. Moreover, they shape future social, geopolitical and economic policies of the country -- well, at least in theory they are supposed to," he said.
"As such, understanding changes in political attitudes over time and across generations can help us better understand where we have come from and where our nation is headed."