In the first installment of our Beyond the Ballot research series, Resurgent Republic sponsored four focus groups among voters under 40 years old. Nearly all the voters in our groups are self-described moderates and support candidates from both political parties in elections. In the presidential contest last November, the men split evenly 10 to 10, and the women favored President Obama 15 to 4. Conducted by Voter/Consumer Research, the groups were held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio.
In recent elections, younger voters supported Democrats by significant margins. In 2008 Obama won voters 18-29 by a margin nearly four times greater than John Kerry. In 2012, Governor Romney scored an 11-point net swing but still lost this age group by 23 points. Moreover, voters 30-39 favored President Obama by 55 to 42 percent. President Obama carried voters under 40 by double digits in Wisconsin and Ohio. These focus groups covered the role of government, the current fiscal debate, and perceptions of both political parties.
Washington really does have a spending problem, according to voters.
All these voters are very concerned about the level of spending and the federal government’s escalating debt. They may have different ideas as to how to solve the problem, but they agree with the premise that Washington spends too much and that the problem is not that taxes are too low. Yet they also view the national debt as an abstract, endless string of zeros. Resurgent Republic has observed from previous focus groups the importance of talking about the debt in more relatable terms such as debt per person or household.
There was an informative discussion when we talked about debt compared to the size of the nation's economy, rather than as a percentage of GDP. We found the following examples helpful in communicating the federal debt’s scope and drag on the economy:
If your annual salary is $50,000, the national debt has increased to the point where you now owe $50,000 on your credit card.
For every dollar you earn on your paycheck, one dollar is added to your credit card.
Moreover, these voters believe that too often their tax dollars are wasted or produce a minimal return on investment. Along with reducing the debt, they want the government to be more efficient. According to one voter, “[It’s] frightening where the money is going. I work hard and I’m not getting further ahead with [Obama] in office and all the money that is being spent. We’re not doing better as a country.”
Men and women under 40 express diverging opinions on the role of government.
To better understand the goals and values influencing their view of government, we asked each voter to complete the following sentence: "I want a government that [fill in the blank]." It was during this discussion that the men and women differed most in their responses. Women under 40 are more likely to define the role of government in terms of services and programs that directly benefit them, such as affordable education and health care benefits. Younger men place a high priority on providing for the national defense and are more likely to explicitly call for less government, such as cutting regulatory red tape.
Both men and women want the federal government to be more "accountable," "responsible," and "efficient." Voters aren't able to spend money they don't have and the government shouldn't either, according to their rationale. Accountability also applies to reforming how government provides welfare benefits. There is a potential challenge for conservatives here because frustrations concerning government benefits emerge on two fronts: resentment of individuals taking advantage of the system, and a desire to qualify for help themselves. The women groups, particularly in Columbus, had a difficult time trying to reconcile their desire to cut spending and reduce the debt with a soft leaning in favor of government programs.
While these women don't quite say it this way, they identify with a squeezed middle class and are looking for a little help to get by. Government hasn't been able to deliver on the financial security they're looking for, but absent a vibrant economy, there's nowhere else to turn. They need to hear how conservative proposals such as a balanced budget go beyond reducing red ink, and promote greater opportunity and upward mobility. They are very familiar with the Washington debate between spending cuts and tax increases, with little to no attention of a third option creating additional revenue through economic growth and job creation.
Observations on the fiscal cliff, sequestration, and entitlements.
Voters under 40 are familiar with the budgetary buzzwords that are commonplace in Washington even if the details of what they stand for are scant. Interestingly, there is a general sense of crisis fatigue and a belief that Washington is only focusing on short-term problems.
Fiscal Cliff – they remember it as a typical Washington scramble with both sides unwilling to compromise. Voters under 40 are generally fine with increasing taxes on the wealthy (and nearly all mentioned their own payroll taxes increasing) but didn’t draw a strong connection between increasing taxes and slowing economic growth. Now that taxes have increased, their focus is on Washington producing results which they have yet to see.
Sequester – discussion on the sequester traveled in several directions. They place a higher priority on targeted cuts as opposed to automatic, across-the-board reductions. There was some unease about what impact the sequester might have on the economy, and a populist sense that the little guy loses out. Still, they disapprove of additional delays or cutting less than the amount previously agreed upon. Several participants view postponing the March 1 deadline as a “Band-Aid solution” and “kicking the can down the road.” One voter noted, “We need to get to the root of the problem, cutting spending gets to the root of the problem, more tax increases will just delay dealing with the root of the problem.
Entitlements – entitlement reform is not off limits among voters under 40. Several participants are aware that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are significant drivers of debt, yet nearly all participants mention the need to first reduce government salaries and benefits along with waste and fraud. Most participants believe they will pay into these programs and not get anything back. This is a fact of life drilled into them from an early age, and they have become numb to this reality over time.
Voters in these groups did not strongly approve or disapprove of President Obama.
As we observed throughout 2012, when swing voters are asked what they like about the President, they talk about his personal characteristics, such as being a good family man and orator. These voters are no different and also believe he has their interests in mind. Even though more voted for his reelection, they are not closely aligned with his policy agenda, and very few tuned into the State of the Union address or watched news coverage. Some participants are looking specifically for more "leadership" in working with Congress to get things done:
"He could be more of a leader on some topics. Rather than saying everyone come together, someone has to lead the ship."
"Seems like things get tough and he just kind of opts out. Like ok, dude, you're the President. You're supposed to do something."
"I like what he says, I hate what he does. What he says, it's fantastic. I love every word of it, but what happens is 180 degrees the opposite."
Obamacare was not part of our discussion, but several participants voluntarily raised the topic. As the implementation date nears, the law is coming back on their radar. They're either anxious about what they don’t know about the law (specifically how it affects their personal health care choices), or they're concerned about what they've heard so far, namely increasing health care costs.
Not surprisingly there's a general distrust of both Republicans and Democrats. These voters have an independent-streak and are cynical about both political parties. As a result, Washington is polarized and dysfunctional. Most participants described themselves as fiscal conservatives and social moderates. This being the case, they mentioned things they like and dislike in both parties. Republicans are viewed favorably on fiscal issues, such as having ideas on the economy, spending, and debt. On the negative side, they're perceived as advocating for the rich and not able to understand the needs of the average person. Social issues, and the tone in which they're discussed, were a common theme among men and women. Democrats are more closely linked to the middle class, having ideas on education, and more welcoming on social issues. Overspending is the universal negative trait for Democrats.
The spending critique of Democrats was unanimous, but not all participants made the broader application as to how these policies have a detrimental outcome beyond reckless deficits and debt. One voter in Columbus succinctly articulated the bigger problem:
"Thumbs down for Democrats. I think it's good in the way they are forward thinking about the environment and health care and a lot of the social issues, but then it comes back to the philosophy in kids sports where everyone gets a trophy. It doesn't work and has led to sense of entitlement for a whole generation and someone has to lose. They don't keep that kind of perspective. By trying to even the playing field, all we are doing is making things worse."
While the President continues to be personally popular, few of these participants are committed supporters of the President. Many are concerned about his inability to get things done.
While most have not tuned into the details of the on-going budget debate, the deficit is a top concern to this group of voters. Most by far agree that spending is the problem and most oppose higher taxes because they do not address the root problem.
Participants, women in particular, are concerned about the economic squeeze on the middle class. Health care and education costs are up sharply; their ability to pay is not.
The groups pointed to significant disagreement with both parties. Their main negative perception of Democrats is reckless spending. Their main negative perceptions of Republicans were an inability to relate to the middle class and intolerance of differences of opinion on social issues.
Focus Groups with Voters Under 40
Voters in these four focus groups were self-described moderates under the age of 40. In the presidential contest, the men split evenly 10 to 10, and the women favored President Obama 15 to 4.
February 13, 2013
Groups separated by gender
Conducted by Voter/Consumer Research
February 18, 2013
Groups separated by gender
Conducted by Voter/Consumer Research