It didn’t quite work out that way. Republicans came roaring back to take control of the House in 2010. Far from adjusting themselves to a liberalism thought to be on the rise, the GOP moved even further right as the tea party became the new political vogue.
Obama did win reelection, but Republicans continued their forward march in Congress, taking the Senate in 2014. Two years later, Donald Trump eked out his electoral college victory and shook the country to its foundations.
You might fairly conclude that political analysts predicting realignments are not much different from stock market touts whose absolute — and mistaken — certainties about coming bull or bear markets lose a lot of people a lot of money. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan in 1980, many more realignments have been forecast than actually materialized.
But there is another way to look at those 2008 predictions: They were not wrong, they were just premature. As a result, a 77-year-old Democratic presidential nominee may be the unlikely instrument of a new generational alignment.
Why now and not in 2008? The most important reason is the obvious one: The backlash against Trump is the driving factor in this election so far — and there could be no better representative of the politics of the past than the current occupant in the White House. He is stubbornly out of touch with the country’s attitudes on many questions, and especially so on racial justice.
Far from adjusting to different times, Trump is betting — as he did in 2016 and as the tea party did in the Obama years — that the leftover right-wing slogans from the 1960s (see: “LAW AND ORDER!”) and a defense of Confederate “heritage” will win him the overwhelming majorities among older white voters that he needs to carry battleground states.
But this isn’t working, and not only because former vice president Joe Biden is an older white guy who is rather hard to tar as an agent of the revolutionary left. It’s also failing because many older voters are petrified of what Trump’s astonishingly inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic means for their health and their very lives.
But more importantly for the long run, the 2020 electorate is not the electorate of the tea party wave, or even of 2016. The new generations that Obama realignment enthusiasts acclaimed 12 years ago are, at long last, the dominant groups in the electorate.
As a Pew Research Center study showed, members of Gen Z (born after 1996) couldn’t even vote in 2012 and made up just 4 percent of the 2016 potential electorate. But they will account for 1 in 10 eligible voters this year. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) will constitute 27 percent of this year’s eligible voters. In combination with Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980), more than 6 in 10 of this year’s electorate will be younger than 55.
Three things are true: (1.) The post-boomer generations are more diverse than the rest of the electorate. (2.) Younger whites are more liberal than their elders on matters of racial justice — as a Washington Post-Schar School poll showed this month — and on social issues. (3.) The share of millennials who vote will be higher than in Obama’s elections simply because they are older than they were in 2008 or 2012.
The 14-point lead Biden enjoyed over Trump in the New York Times-Siena College poll released last week reflects all these factors. Biden is splitting voters over 50 roughly evenly with Trump and then overwhelming the president among registered voters under 35 (59 to 25 percent) and those 35 to 49 (53 to 30 percent).
Nor did Biden’s margins depend solely on the diversity of the younger cohorts. Among whites under 45, Biden led Trump 52 to 30 percent.
Thus could a president who rose to power by exploiting the fears and anxieties of the aging part of the country find himself brought down by the rising generations who have had enough of the past. The United States of Trump’s imagination may simply no longer exist.