10/30/2014 11:33 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

America's millennials deserting Obama, Democrats, poll suggests

U.S. President Barack Obama and Democrats can't count on support from America's millennials the way they used to, according to a new study by Harvard University that suggests youth, as a voting bloc, are once again in play.

The school's Institute of Politics has been tracking young Americans’ attitudes toward politics since 2000, and the poll conducted this fall, ahead of Tuesday' midterm elections, suggests that a shift in the political landscape is underway.

"In contrast to where we were four years ago, the youth vote is very much up for grabs politically," John Della Volpe, the institute's polling director, said in a call with reporters this week.

"The lesson here for us is that young people, millennials, are no longer the political outliers that they once were," he said.

The study found that a majority of those surveyed would prefer Congress be controlled by Democrats instead of Republicans, but the key finding is that the opposite view is held among most of those who are actually going to the polls on Nov.4.

Fifty-one per cent of those who say they will definitely be voting would prefer a Republican-controlled Congress. That's a big change from the last midterm election in 2010, when it was the Democrats who won the majority when that question was asked — and they won it by a wide margin of 12 percentage points.

Obama is also losing favour with young Americans. His job performance approval has dropped from 47 per cent in April to 43 per cent this fall. When Obama was elected in 2008 he dominated the youth vote, capturing it by about 30 percentage points over Republican John McCain. But as the poll suggests, the support is slipping.

Young Hispanic voters in particular appear to be bailing on Obama. Two years ago they chose him over Mitt Romney by 51 percentage points, and five years ago his job approval rating among Hispanics was at a whopping 81 per cent. And now? Just forty-nine per cent.

Youth becoming less Democratic

The survey was of 2,029 18-to-29-year-olds. The questions were asked online between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9 and the polling was conducted by the firm GfK.

Obama and Democrats are losing support, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into glowing endorsements for Republicans, the study found. Seventy-two per cent disapprove of the job Republicans are doing in Congress (60 per cent disapprove of Democrats).

"It's less about young people becoming more Republican, they’re just a little bit less Democratic than we’ve seen through the Obama years from 2008 to 2012," said Della Volpe.

"Today young people are just kind of returning to their pre-Obama roots of being a swing constituency like many other groups in American politics," he said. "They are more like the rest of America than we might have thought. They are not the outliers that they had been from a political perspective and a partisan perspective."

What all this means for Democrats and Republicans is that they will have to readjust their strategies if they want to win over this demographic. Millennials, as this and other studies have suggested, are apathetic when it comes to politics. They care about their country and their communities, but are seeking other avenues to effect change instead of participating in politics.

More will volunteer than vote

Della Volpe said more young people will volunteer in 2014 than will vote on election day.

The parties, if they want the votes, first need to come up with ways to attract young people to politics and then convince them to vote for them. The Democrats clearly can’t count on their support the way they used to, and the door has swung open for Republicans, who could take advantage of this demographic.

The Harvard researchers suggest that if the parties are smart, they will pay more attention to this group of Americans, and not just now but as the 2016 election approaches.

"Millennials could be a critical swing vote. Candidates for office: ignore millennial voters at your peril," said Maggie Williams, director of the Institute of Politics.

Other findings from the survey:

- Only 18 per cent said they consider themselves politically active or engaged.

- When asked which national issue concerns them most, 31 per cent said it was the economy, and 77 per cent said the economy is important in choosing a candidate on Nov. 4.

- 56 per cent said they blame everyone — Democrats and Republicans — for the gridlock in Washington.

- 38 per cent said they are somewhat worried there will be a major terrorist attack in the U.S.

- A majority of respondents disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy, health care, foreign policy and immigration, and a majority disapprove of the Affordable Care Act.