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Poll: Hillary Clinton's "millennial problem" disappears against Donald Trump

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Young voters have overwhelmingly backed Bernie Sanders throughout the Democratic primary, leading to endless speculation that Hillary Clinton will face a big "millennial problem" come November.

A new poll out today, however, suggests that Clinton would do more than just fine with young people in a general election. Clinton leads Donald Trump by a whopping 36 points among people ages 18 to 29, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics study released on Monday.

That's much higher than Clinton's current 8-point lead over Trump in the general election polling averages. Clinton's huge advantage over Trump in the youth vote extends to both genders, among blacks, Latinos, and Caucasians, and among both Democrats and independents.

Perhaps most encouraging for the Democratic frontrunner: Clinton's support among youth voters doesn't appear dependent on getting matched up against Trump. In fact, Clinton only performs about 8 points better against Trump than she does against a "generic Republican" candidate, according to Harvard's poll.

There may still be reason to think Clinton is a weak general election candidate. But whatever other vulnerabilities she may have, this poll suggests getting young people to support her is unlikely to be one of them.

Young Republicans really can't stand Donald Trump

Trump
(Ethan Miller/Getty)
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

When asked to pick between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, most young Republicans still favor Trump — by a 44-point margin.

But young Republicans really, really dislike Trump. No other Republican presidential candidate has such low favorability ratings among young people.

Just look at the Harvard poll numbers when they asked about candidates' favorability:

Courtesy of the Harvard Institute of Politics

This finding helps underscore what many observers have long suspected: that Trump's brand is toxic to young people in a way we haven't seen in a long time. The Harvard poll of Trump versus Clinton would put Trump's support among young people lower than that of any other Republican presidential candidate since modern exit polls began in 1972, according to CNN.

Trump may still beat Clinton among young Republicans. But this poll suggests that Trump is so disliked by young Republicans that some of them may sit out the election altogether.

Bernie Sanders is making young people like the Democratic Party

While Clinton leads Trump among young voters, they still overwhelmingly name Bernie Sanders as their favorite candidate.

Over the course of the primary, of course, that's hurt Clinton mightily. But as Max Ehrenfreund points out at the Washington Post, this poll suggests that Sanders has brought young people into the fold of the Democratic Party — a trend that could ultimately help Clinton in 2016.

This is very good news for the Democrats: Thanks to a well-known political science phenomenon known as "generational imprinting," voters tend to form relatively rigid partisan identities in their early 20s that they then carry through life.

Of course, new events can lead them to change their minds. But if political science is any indication, this new wave of young Democrats is likely to keep their allegiance to the party well into adulthood — possibly shifting the center of gravity in the American political system.

Young people are moving far to the left on policy

The problem, from Clinton's perspective, might be that Sanders has been too successful at pulling young people to the left.

Young people don't just overwhelmingly favor Sanders the person: They also have increasingly adopted a range of his most progressive positions — including skepticism of capitalism, openness to socialism, and similar views on issues like fighting poverty and providing basic health care to all people, according to the Harvard poll.

Of course, it's impossible to know how much Bernie's popularity and rhetoric accounts for this change, and how much of it would be happening even if he hadn't taken the national stage by storm. But the Harvard pollsters who conducted the study think that Sanders's campaign has both tapped into this shift and pushed it along itself, according to the Washington Post.

From the perspective of a Clinton White House, this creates the thrilling possibility of a durable Democratic majority. But the data also suggest that, if young voters continue to adopt positions more in line with Sanders's, the 2016 primary contest may just be a preview of battles within the Democratic Party for years to come.