Young people are leaning Democratic ahead of the 2016 presidential election, are tending toward distrust in America’s criminal-justice system, and are slowly becoming more hawkish than ever before.
Those are some of the findings from a fascinating new survey of young people from the Harvard University Institute of Politics released on Wednesday, the latest in the institute’s 15-year series of surveys of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds.
“There are millions of 18- to 29-year-olds who remain hopeful about our nation’s future,” said Maggie Williams, the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics. “They are ready to engage in the 2016 election – from voting to volunteering – if political leaders build trust not only as candidates but also in the political process itself.”
Here are five of the most illuminating findings from the survey.
Young Americans were equally split when asked about their confidence in the U.S. justice system’s ability to “fairly judge people without bias for race or ethnicity.”
And there are deep divisions by race and party. A majority of young white Americans (55 percent) are confident, but an even stronger majority of African-Americans (66 percent) said they are not confident. A slimmer majority of Hispanics, at 53 percent, expressed a lack of confidence in the justice system.
Meanwhile, similar majorities of Democrats and independents said the justice system is not fair — but two-in-three young Republicans said it is.
Protests over incidents of police misconduct — the latest coming over the past week in Baltimore — have become seemingly constant since last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, where white police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
But just 49 percent of young Americans said they either strongly or somewhat support these protests, centered around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. And just 39 percent think the protests will “be effective in making meaningful change,” according to the survey.
Like before, there are significant distinctions across racial lines. Just 37 percent of young whites support the protests, for example, compared with 81 percent of young African-Americans. And only 29 percent of young white Americans think they will make a difference, compared with 60 percent of young African-Americans.
One thing all races agree on: 80 percent of young Americans overall think requiring police to wear body cameras while on patrol will be effective in “reducing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.”
Overall, 55 percent of young respondents in the survey said they prefer Democrats keep control of the White House after the 2016 presidential election, compared with 40 percent who prefer Republicans.
The gap, however, is closer than the final vote in the 2008 and 2012 elections, when young people overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama, giving him at least 60 percent of the vote in each election.
John Della Volpe, the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, told reporters during a conference call that the current split is more reminiscent of the 2004 election, in which Democratic nominee John Kerry narrowly edged then-President George W. Bush in the youth vote.
“Personally, this race to me looks like the 2004 race,” Della Volpe said, when Kerry won the youth vote but it “wasn’t enough to propel him to a national victory.”
Hillary Clinton remains out far ahead of other potential Democratic candidates among young people. The Harvard survey included U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who has stressed she will not run for president, and found she would be the strongest challenger to Clinton.
Overall, Clinton grabs 47 percent of the vote from young Democrats. Warren is next with 11 percent, followed by Vice President Joe Biden at 8 percent and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at 3 percent. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), who is expected to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on Thursday, gets just 1 percent of the vote.
The Republican side is much more cluttered. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, gets the most support (9 percent) of those who self-identify as Republicans or lean Republican. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is next at 8 percent, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush grabs 7 percent of the young Republican vote. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the youngest of the declared GOP candidates, received 3 percent.
“We tried a variety of factors,” Della Volpe said, such as showing half of respondents the candidate’s name along with a picture of them. “Nobody really stood out.”
A solid majority of young Americans now support sending ground troops to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State or ISIS in the Middle East. That 57 percent overall support goes across gender, racial, regional, and socioeconomic divides.
Meanwhile, the survey found a sharp, 7-point increase in the percentage of young people who agree with this statement: In today’s world, it is sometimes necessary to attack potentially hostile countries, rather than waiting until we are attacked to respond. Overall, 23 percent of young Americans now agree with that statement.
There was also a 10-point increase in the percentage of young people who believe the U.S. should “take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts.” And 13 percent fewer young people believe that the U.S. should “let other countries and the U.N. take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts.”
The shifting sentiment could lead to ramifications in the 2016 election — especially on the Republican side, where some candidates like Paul have built their brands on pushing a relative non-interventionist foreign policy.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.