The Big Split Among Democrats is by Age, not Race

The latest polling out of California shows some eye-popping numbers in the Democratic primary race. Standard analysis of the primary battle is that Clinton performs well among women and minorities, while Sanders support is confined to white men and college students. But that’s not really the case.

The truth is that there is a stunning divide between left-leaning voters over 50, and the vast majority of millennials and gen-x. From the latest LA Times poll in California:

The generational divide among Californians is the most obvious sign of Sanders’ success, and a logical one given the contours of the campaign. With a strongly anti-establishment pitch, he has promoted a “political revolution,” while she has taken on a more nuanced and incremental approach that dovetails with the comfort zone of older voters.

Among those under 50, Sanders held a 27-point advantage among all Democratic primary voters and a 21-point edge among likely voters. Among those over 50, Clinton led by 32 points among both groups.

It’s not just among white voters, either. Latino voters under 50 are also heavily for Sanders:

Among Latino voters under age 50, Sanders led, 58%-31%, not much different from his 62%-27% lead among younger white voters. The views of other ethnic and racial groups were too small to break out separately by age, but when all younger minority voters were considered, Sanders led, 59%-32%.

While the age divide has been a consistent theme of the primary election, it’s especially striking in California, where Clinton doesn’t have quite the same edge among minority voters as elsewhere. Clinton’s lead among African-Americans remains high here–but not quite as forbidding as in other areas of the country.

While some might be inclined to attribute this effect to cultural differences between California and the rest of the nation, that’s not entirely true. The difference is the surge of young, mostly minority voters in California who are overwhelmingly in Sanders’ corner. Including young women. As Dave Dayen explains:

The reason for this is an incredible divide on age, which does mirror what we’ve seen in other primaries. Sanders is winning 75-15 among Californians under 30, while Clinton has nearly a two-to-one advantage among voters 50 and older. Among first-time voters, Sanders is winning by a remarkable 60-21. This first-time voter split is similar to other primaries. The difference is that California simply has a lot more young voters to surge to the polls and make manifest Sanders’s “political revolution.”

Demographically, California represents the Democratic Party’s future. Latino voters in the state are young, in many cases the sons and daughters of immigrants who were born and raised elsewhere. And these voters have been engaged by an explicitly progressive message. That will matter long after this presidential race is over.

Indeed. In spite of having secured almost every major endorsement and the entirety of institutional party support even before the primary began, Clinton will have taken the nomination almost entirely due to the support of voters over the age of 50, as well as African-Americans over 30 (Sanders wins African-Americans under 30.)

Sanders’ populist, aggressively liberal, anti-interventionist, explicitly anti-Wall Street politics are without any doubt the future of the Democratic Party. But for Clinton’s positive longstanding reputation in the African-American community and the perception that Clinton would do more to defend the accomplishments of the first black president than Sanders, it’s quite likely that Sanders would be on his way to the nomination today. Had Elizabeth Warren stepped into the ring she would likely have secured the Sanders coalition while also negating Clinton’s gender gap, which would have easily won her the nod.

The upshot? Clinton didn’t win the nomination because a sober-minded coalition of minorities and core Democrats held the tide against against a bunch of whiny white men, disloyal independent crossovers and college kids. Clinton won because of a legacy of trust among baby boomers and older African-Americans, that overwhelmed the clear preferences of the generations that follow–irrespective of race and gender.

Voters under 50 aren’t settling for incrementalism, interventionism, means-tested welfare traps, big donors, and the notion that the current financial system is basically OK as long as people of all races and genders can get access to the corner office at Goldman Sachs. They want something very different from that. They want universal rights, rapid changes (and aggressive bully pulpiting if Republicans obstruct), a reduction of overseas military spending and the systematic dismantling of the finance-industry-driven economy that delivers almost all the benefits to the top tenth of one percent while slashing jobs and wages at home.

And they’ll get it sooner or later.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.