Kiddie Vote Cross-Currents

One of the most remarkable aspects of contemporary politics is the extent to which support for the two major political parties has become highly correlated with age. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama’s percentage of the vote varied inversely with the age of voters. The only age demographic won by John McCain in 2008 was over-65s; in the closer election of 2012, Mitt Romney won voters in the forties by two points; those between 50 and 64 by five points; and those 65 and over by nine points. Meanwhile, Obama won under-30 voters by 34 points in 2008 and by 23 points in 2012.

A lot of the “demographic destiny” argument for future Democratic dominance in presidential elections flows from this big advantage among younger voters. But will it abruptly be reversed in the next cohort of voters whose main early political experience has been of hard times under a Democratic administration? At The Upshot, David Leonhardt examines the evidence, and concludes a pro-Republican trend among new voters may soon emerge–but one that will be significantly limited by the internal demographics of young voters.

First, Leonhardt comes down in favor of the generational theory of party preferences as against the idea that voters start left and drift right as they age:

Academic research has found that generations do indeed have ideological identities. People are particularly shaped by events as they first become aware of the world, starting as young as 10 years old, as a new analysis by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman notes….

The generation that came of age during the five presidential terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman leaned Democratic for its entire life. So have those young liberals of the 1960s, who learned American politics through the glamour of John F. Kennedy. The babies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who entered political consciousness during the Reagan years, lean Republican….

These identities are a more useful guide to American politics than the largely useless cliché about adults starting off liberal and slowly becoming more conservative. Like a broken clock, that cliché can seem accurate at times, mostly thanks to luck.

So yes, there’s a decent chance first-time voters in 2016 will lean less Democratic than in 2008 or even 2012. But undercutting that trend is the decreasingly white nature of the youth vote:

[T]he next generation of voters is an ethnically diverse group: About 45 percent of American citizens in their teenage years are either Latino or a member of a racial minority, compared with only 29 percent of citizens 20 and older.

So Democratic losses among young white voters could well be offset by a growing nonwhite youth vote, particularly if Republicans continue to reinforce negative impressions of their party among Latinos, who are otherwise ripe for a turn against Democrats (viz. the president’s persistently lagging job approval ratings among Latinos).

Things get hazier when you look further into the internal demographics of different age groups, but it’s likely the more liberal of young voters disproportionately turn out in presidential years, while their more conservative peers tend to turn out at higher rates in midterms. So we could see some misleading evidence this November about the preferences of under-30 voters in 2016. And like the 2014 results in general, that could lead Republicans into some pretty serious strategic errors about their standing going into the presidential cycle, particularly since there’s a powerful resistance in the contemporary GOP to any change in ideology, policy or message, unless it’s clearly a matter of change or disaster. Any data that makes disaster without change less probable will be seized upon with great excitement, mark my words.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.