Millennials ambivalent on fighting Islamic State, Harvard poll shows

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CAMBRIDGE – A Harvard University poll shows that most American millennials believe the U.S. should intensify the fight against Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East with more ground troops but few said they would willingly join the service to help.

While 60 percent of those surveyed said they would back sending in more troops to fight Islamic State forces, which have occupied parts of Iraq and Syria, 85 percent indicated they probably or definitely would not join the effort, even if military commanders called for reinforcements. The numbers for both questions rose following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

“I’m reminded of the significant degree of distrust that this generation has about all things related to government,” John Della Volpe, the polling director for the survey, told National Public Radio. “And I believe if young people had a better relationship with government … they’d be more open to serving.”

The online survey of 2,011 people 18 to 29 years of age  from Oct. 30 to Nov. 9 had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points, while a follow-up sampled the views of 435 respondents during an unspecified period after the Paris attacks. The pollsters queried respondents about a range of issues, including politics, their economic situation and outlook.

“Our fall poll shows they are deeply divided about who should lead America, focused on candidate integrity and split over whether the American Dream is alive or not,” Maggie Williams, the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said in a statement when the poll was released on Thursday. “We are hopeful that political leaders will inspire and include this generation in conversations about the future of their country.”

More than half, 56 percent, prefer to keep a Democrat in the White House, about the same as in the spring. But the portion who want a Republican president fell noticeably to 36 percent from 40 percent in spring.

While more millennial Republican voters backed reality TV star Donald Trump than any other candidate, at 22 percent, more, 39 percent, said he wasn’t qualified for the job than said he was qualified, at 38 percent. On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders soared from 1 percent support in spring to 41 percent in the most-recent survey. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support fell to 35 percent from 47 percent over the same time.  

The Paris attacks galvanized opinion on the fight against Islamic State, with support surging for sending troops to the Middle East compared with an equal 48-48 percent split in the early November results. When the question was asked in the spring, 57 percent supported putting boots on the ground against the extremists. The institute has surveyed young American adults for 15 years.

Millennials are also divided over whether the “American Dream” is alive or dead. While 49 percent said it remained alive for them personally, 48 percent said it was dead. The gap widened based on education, as 58 percent of college graduates said the dream was alive compared with 42 percent among those with no more than a high-school education.

Although it may come as no surprise that young adults have been fading from political involvement, the poll’s findings are staggering.

Fewer than half said they are following the 2016 presidential primary campaigns “very” or “somewhat” closely. Just 20 percent consider themselves “politically engaged and active.” In 2011, as the campaign for the 2012 elections was gearing up, the institute found that at least a quarter of millennials were politically engaged.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter, @karabettis.