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Young Arkansans: seeds of a progressive rebirth? 

The 2014 elections provided clarity about the present state of Arkansas politics. While many persist in labeling themselves "Independents," a reliable Republican majority electorate now exists in Arkansas. These voters combine a deep cultural conservatism and aggressive foreign policy views with a more hands-off streak regarding the role of government in citizens' economic lives. This ensures that — for the near future, in both statewide and legislative elections — thoroughly conservative Republicanism will drive the state's politics.

But, a natural phenomenon politely termed "generational replacement" by social scientists (that is, old people going to that polling booth in the sky and being replaced by younger voters) is another key source of electoral change. Nationally, younger voters are a decidedly progressive lot as compared with older voters. While slow to identify with any political party, the Republican Party's brand is thoroughly toxic among voters below the age of 35. Moreover, on issue after issue — both social and economic — these voters choose the more progressive stance by broad margins and are comfortable terming themselves liberals.

What about the political predispositions of the millennial generation in Arkansas? A former student who is smack-dab in the middle of the millennial generation wrote last week to ask what recent polling is telling us about that question. In terms of partisanship, ideology and stances on key issues, are they more like their peers elsewhere in the nation or more like older Arkansans?

Because Arkansas voters were polled nonstop in the 2014 cycle — no fewer than 36 statewide polls in the U.S. Senate race between Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton are recorded by the poll aggregator Real Clear Politics — we have been provided a tremendous opportunity to examine the political predilections of subgroups of Arkansans, including the youngest group of voters who will drive Arkansas political outcomes for decades to come. (Admittedly, traditional phone-based polling strategies are creating real challenges for pollsters with younger folks; it's a key reason Talk Business/Hendrix College, in collaboration with Impact Management Group, are trying some experimental survey techniques this year.)

First, in terms of partisanship, Arkansas's youngest voters seem to be dubious about existing political institutions with national millennials. In the last Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll before the 2014 elections, just under half of those under 30 termed themselves either an independent (32 percent) or identified with a third party (a fairly amazing 16 percent). Moreover, the Republican Party's national brand challenges also seem to be expressing themselves with younger voters in Arkansas; only 19 percent of the sub-30 electorate was willing to identify with the GOP. So, while only a third of this age group call themselves Democrats (about the same as among older Arkansas voters), comparatively the party is doing well with millennials. On election day in 2014, the only sliver of hope (and it was, indeed, a sliver) came among those youngest voters; both Cotton and Gov. Asa Hutchinson just reached 50 percent with this youngest group, according to exit polls, while winning more than six in 10 votes among seniors.

Second, just as is the case nationally, it is also true that millennials are the most progressive age group in the Arkansas electorate, though in a decidedly more muted form. According to the 2014 Arkansas Poll, just at half of Arkansas millennials describe themselves as either moderate or liberal. Older Arkansans are more likely to embrace a self-description of "conservative."

Finally, on most key issues, millennials in Arkansas are, indeed, more progressive than those whom they will replace in the electorate but not as progressive as others around the nation. On the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, while nearly 70 percent of millennials nationally now support marriage equality, less than one-third of Arkansas's young voters do. Still, a majority of younger Arkansans now support either marriage or civil unions, according to the 2014 Arkansas Poll; the bulk of older Arkansans — though a shrinking number compared with past surveys — oppose any legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

On medical marijuana, a majority (52 percent) of Arkansans under 30 expressed support in an April 2014 Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey when it appeared the measure would be on the November 2014 ballot; all Arkansans were evenly split on that proposal while, nationally, 69 percent of millennials favor wholesale legalization of marijuana according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Similarly, younger Arkansans are decidedly more supportive of the statewide legalization of alcohol sales; the final post-election survey on the measure conducted by Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College showed that right at half of the youngest voters favored it while it trailed statewide by just at the margin by which it ultimately failed. Lastly, on another Arkansas-specific issue — the continuation of the "private option" — a healthy majority of the youngest voters support the plan while it leads with all voters 46 percent to 32 percent, according to a Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll early in the current legislative session.

All told, this overview of the political predispositions of Arkansas's millennials is not the foundation for a full-scale Democratic comeback in The Natural State. However, for a political party needing a sense that tomorrow will be a brighter day, this data provides some evidence that the next generation will be a bit kinder to progressive's fortunes.

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