MISSOULA, Mont. — This funky college town, nestled along two rivers where five mountain ranges converge, has long been a liberal pocket, an isolated speck of blue in a deeply red state. Now Montana is electing more politicians who lean that way, thanks to a different-minded generation of young voters animated by the recession and social issues.
Sam Thompson, 22, an environmental studies major at the University of Montana, considers himself “fiscally conservative" but opposes cuts to Medicare; he expects to need health coverage when he grows old. Aaron Curtis, 27, a graduate student, admired Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican, but could not stomach Mitt Romney’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Billie Loewen and Heather Jurva, editors at the student newspaper, speak of a Depression-era mentality that is pushing their generation to back Democrats. Saddled with student debt, they worry about health care and are terrified that they will not find good jobs. “You might be just one accident away from losing everything," said Jurva, who has worked 40 hours a week waiting on tables to put herself through school.
It is no secret that young voters tilt left on social issues like immigration and gay rights. But these students, and dozens of other young people interviewed here last week, give voice to a trend that is surprising pollsters and jangling the nerves of Republicans. On a central philosophical question of the day — the size and scope of the federal government — a clear majority of young people embraces President Barack Obama’s notion that it can be a constructive force.
“Young people absolutely believe that there’s a role for government," said Matt Singer, a founder of Forward Montana, a left-leaning though officially nonpartisan group that seeks to engage young people in politics. “At the same time, this is not a generation of socialists. They are highly entrepreneurial, and know that some of what it takes to create an environment where they can do their own exciting, creative things is having basic systems that work."
In Montana, a state that backed John McCain in 2008 and Romney last year, voters under 30 have helped elect two Democratic senators and a new Democratic governor. Nationally since 2004, young voters have been casting their ballots for Democrats by far wider margins than previous young generations — a shift that could reshape American politics for decades.
Under-30 voters are “the only age group in which a majority said the government should do more to fix problems," the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported in November. In a Pew survey a year earlier, more than 8 in 10 said they believed that Social Security and Medicare had been good for the country, and they were especially supportive of seeing the programs overhauled so they would be intact when they retire. (Young people were also more open than their elders to privatizing the programs.)
And while Washington fights about how to cut the federal deficit, young voters believe that it is more important to create jobs, have affordable access to health care and develop “a world-class education system," according to the Institute of Politics at Harvard.
Those sentiments were borne out in interviews here. When Forward Montana convened a focus group at a Missoula cafe to develop a “youth agenda" last week, the deficit did not register a mention. One attendee, Michael Graef, 18, who started a fitness business rather than attend college, said he rarely thought about the deficit.
“Education is top on my list," he said. “If everybody is better educated, most of the other issues can work themselves out."
Steve Bullock, the new Democratic governor, won after campaigning on a promise to freeze college tuition. Young voters also helped Sen. Jon Tester, another Democrat, who narrowly ousted a Republican incumbent in 2006 and won re-election last year. Both times, polls stayed open hours past their official closing time to accommodate long lines of students. Both times, Forward Montana ran huge voter registration drives — an effort that may “pay really big dividends" for Democrats in the future, said Christopher Muste, a political scientist here.
The victories rattled Republican state lawmakers, who are now trying to undo a Montana law that permits voters to register on Election Day. Republicans say last-minute registration creates long lines and confusion.
Voters younger than 30 accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. electorate last year, up from 18 percent in 2008. These millennials are by far the most ethnically and racially diverse voter cohort; whites account for just 58 percent of them, according to the Pew center, while 76 percent of older voters are white.
That diversity is partly why young voters skew liberal, said Scott Keeter, the center’s director of survey research. As more young people come of age, the electorate will grow more diverse. Unless Republicans break the bonds between Democrats and minorities, Keeter said, “this alignment is going to be baked into the younger generation."
Kristen Soltis Anderson, who studies young voters for the Winston Group, which advises House Republicans, said her party ignores young voters at its peril. She sees “a real risk" that Republicans could lose millennials in the coming years.
So as Republican leaders focus on trying to attract more Hispanics and women, Anderson is urging them to develop a message that will appeal to the under-30 crowd by emphasizing nongovernmental alternatives to solving problems, as opposed to just limiting government.
“When you ask young voters what caused the recession, this whole idea that there wasn’t enough regulation, or it was George W. Bush’s fault, is present," she said. “When conservatives make the argument, ‘Hey, the government needs to get out of the way and let you make decisions for yourself,’ a lot of young people don’t have this idea of the government as a boogeyman. So it makes the conservative message less resonant."
There is, of course, no guarantee that millennials will hold onto their current liberal tendencies. Studies show that voters are heavily influenced by the president with whom they came of age; the Franklin D. Roosevelt generation, for instance, stayed Democratic for decades, while many in the Reagan generation remained Republican.
But views can evolve; baby boomers, who supported big government in their 20s and 30s, have become more conservative over time, the Pew center has found. While today’s young voters are more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans or independents, their ideas and philosophies are not quite fixed yet, said John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Here in Missoula, young people who voted for Obama last year said in interviews that they would be open to voting Republican, particularly if a candidate supports same-sex marriage. Young Republicans, too, hope their party will shift on that issue.
“The social issues are hard," said Ashley Nerbovig, 19, who backed Romney. “It’s not realistic that you can be against gay marriage and abortion."
If the economy had been in better shape, she said, “I would have picked Obama over Romney for social issues."
“My analysis has been for a while that it’s going to come down to not whether the government should address certain problems, but how," said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. “We’ll shift from, ‘Does government even have a role?’ to ‘Given that government needs to play a role, what’s the best way of doing that?’"
He added: “I expect those to be the arguments 10 or 15 years from now. That would be a big shift, but I think it’s coming."
The state matches a nationwide trend: Since 2004, young voters have been casting their ballots for Democrats by far wider margins than previous young generations — a change that could reshape American politics for decades.