President Donald Trump has managed to widen the gender gap and alienate college-educated whites in a way no previous Republican president did. However, the most problematic development for the GOP in the long term may be the rise of a new generation of voters strongly opposed to the Trumpized Republican Party.
As The Washington Post reported: “The Census found that 36 percent of citizens ages 18-29 reported voting in last year’s midterm elections, jumping 16 percentage points since 2014 (when turnout was 20 percent) and easily surpassing any midterm election since the 1980s. Turnout also increased sharply among adults ages 30-44, rising from 36 percent in 2014 to 49 percent in 2018. While turnout among younger adults still lags that of their elders, last year’s election marked a clear break from the past two decades of anemic turnout among the youngest citizens.”
These newly energized voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats. About two-thirds (67 percent) of voters younger than 30 supported Democrats. Nearly 60 percent of voters 30 to 44 voted for Democrats. Some 92 percent of African Americans in this age bracket supported Democrats. Put the numbers together and Democrats carried voters under 45 by 61 percent to 36 percent while they statistically tied (49/50) Republicans among voters 45 and older.
This came in the context of an election in which Republicans clung to Trump, who was omnipresent in election coverage. “Americans’ interest in midterm elections usually lags far behind that of presidential years,” The Post reported, “but in 2018 there were places where turnout approached or even exceeded levels seen in the 2016 presidential election. The historical surge signals the potential for record-setting turnout in 2020.”
Steven Olikara, who heads the Millennial Action Project, told me, “As we anticipated, we saw the highest-ever millennial turnout for a midterm election in 2018. Millennial Action Project’s polling found that our generation was not voting reflexively as partisans, but rather voting on issues.” He continued, “Chief among those issues included correcting federal immigration and refugee policies, obtaining new economic opportunities, and fixing a political system that’s viewed as broken. Post-Parkland student organizing clearly made an impact as well. Looking ahead to 2020, I expect environmental protection to increasingly define the millennial and Gen Z vote.”
There are several important takeaways here.
First, these numbers match other surveys showing millennials are far more progressive than prior generations. The Pew Research Center found that, among registered voters, 59 percent of millennials affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, compared with about half of baby boomers and Gen Xers (48 percent each), and 43 percent of the so-called silent generation (those born between 1925 and 1945). “With this divide comes generational differences on specific issue areas, from views of racial discrimination and immigration to foreign policy and the scope of government,” Pew found.
The problem for Republicans is undeniable: “Millennials remain the most liberal and Democratic of the adult generations.” Younger voters are more attuned to racial discrimination and have more affinity for immigrants. In addition, millennials and Gen Xers are more likely than boomers or silents to say the government should do more for the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. Millennials are also more likely than the generations preceding them to say it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that all Americans have health care coverage.
A large, engaged and decidedly progressive generation is a threat to the GOP’s survival as long as it remains a right-wing, nativist party.
Second, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is onto something with an appeal to a new generation of leaders. We’ve pointed to a comparison between 2020 and 1976, the first post-Watergate presidential election, but perhaps the more apt comparison is to 1960, when John Kennedy ran on a message of generational change. (“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”) Then, too, the economy was strong, but a vibrant, generous and aspirational spirit carried the day.
In the Democratic field, a trio of top-tier candidates includes two septuagenarians and a 37-year-old. Buttigieg’s suggestion that the prior generation has worn out its welcome and is ill-equipped to tackle 21st century policies may be compelling even for older voters.
Third, if Hillary Clinton’s failure in 2016 was her inability to comprehend that this was a change election, Trump’s problem may be that his nostalgia for a bygone America holds little appeal for voters worried about contemporary problems. He is entirely unequipped to address major concerns such as climate change, income inequality and racial injustice. In short, he’s old, he’s out of it and he’s living in the past. It will be Democrats’ job to underscore that and keep younger voters engaged. If they do, they may well set the voting pattern for a large generation that will be casting votes for decades to come.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.