Yet most Republicans are in denial about the scale of the problem, as well as its solution. They dismiss young voters’ ideological leanings as a byproduct of social media or liberal college educations and assert that better messaging or, as the most prominent young conservative commentator Ben Shapiro wrote, “condemning bad behavior” from President Trump would win them back.
But that analysis ignores that the Republican problems stretch to basically all voters under 45. Decades of data unequivocally reveal that these voters do not share Republican preferences or principles on major issues and would not be won over by anyone “advocating conservative policies.” They aren’t being driven left by their college professors, but rather by the Republican Party’s spectacular record of policy failure in the 21st century, and getting rid of Trump won’t be nearly enough to win them back.
One overarching fallacy contributes more than anything else to the GOP’s misunderstanding of the situation: that young people have always been on the political left, only to move right as they age. It’s not true, but this folk wisdom has long led parties astray.
In 1972, the insurgent candidacy of George McGovern was counting on huge margins among newly enfranchised 18- to 21-year-olds. As pollster Louis Harris wrote a few months before the election, “McGovern strategists are banking on this heavy tilt of the young toward the Senator to make a substantial difference in a close election.” Although McGovern did better with 18- to 29-year-olds than any other age group, he still lost them by six points en route to one of the worst performances in American electoral history.
McGovern’s loss wasn’t an anomaly. Dwight D. Eisenhower twice carried the youngest voters decisively. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 18- to 24-year-olds, 61 to 39 percent — four points more than his overall margin of victory. And in 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis did better with the elderly than he did with America’s youngest voters. As recently as 2000, George W. Bush won the same percentage (47) of the 18- to 24-year-old vote as he did of voters over 65.
Before 2004, in fact, it was actually rare — though not unheard of — for any age group to break by double digits or more from the overall electorate, let alone for the same cohort to lean decisively in one direction for multiple elections in a row. As the chart below shows, according to the Roper Center For Public Opinion Research, the very youngest voters were only the cohort that most deviated from the overall electorate in three of seven elections between 1976 and 2000.
D + 0.5
R + 2.4
D + 7.2
Most divergent cohort
Swing from electorate
D + 9.9
D + 10.7
D + 3.5
D + 15.4
D + 26.8
D + 19.1
But George W. Bush’s presidency changed that.
Despite losing the popular vote, he nonetheless governed divisively, pushing through tax cuts that disproportionately favored the wealthy and then staking his legacy on an ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq.
The 2004 election was the first in which most millennials — defined by Pew as those born between 1981 and 1996 — could vote. These fresh voters went for Democrat John F. Kerry by a margin of 56 to 43, a shocking 15.4-point swing from the overall results of the election. This cohort had watched their peers do the majority of the fighting and dying in Iraq and recoiled at Bush’s staunch cultural conservatism, including his advocacy for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The Great Recession, which also began under Bush, added economic misery to the disastrous war, doing possibly permanent damage to the economic prospects of the whole generation.
The result has been that the 2004 election results have become the new normal for the GOP: 18- to 29-year-olds have broken decisively for Democrats in every national election since, something which is without precedent in the polling era. In voting for the House, the closest Republicans have come to winning 18- to 29-year-olds was losing them by 10 points in 2014. This cohort voted Democratic by an incredible 35-point margin in 2018, and surveys suggest Trump is set to lose these voters by at least 20 points in November, if not more.
What’s staggering is that these aren’t the same voters: 2004’s 18- to 29-year-olds now make up the majority of the 30-44 age group. And their politics have remained consistently Democratic, with little to no erosion from youth to early middle age.
Until recently, these developments, while unusual, were explainable by the scholarly finding that one of the few factors that can break the dominant influence that parents have in forming one’s political attitudes is the performance of the party in power when he or she turns 18. Yet, until the coronavirus outbreak, Trump was overseeing a robust economy in peacetime — and still repulsing Generation Z, or Zoomers, those born after 1996, in droves. That’s because these Americans were driven left not only by policy disaster, but also a yawning gap between the GOP’s positions and attitudes and what young people want.
millennials and Zoomers are substantially less White than their elders and are turned off by the national GOP’s incessant culture war. They are more likely to believe that Black people face discrimination and to want major changes in policing and criminal justice policies. Additionally, for two decades, according to the long-running Harvard Youth Poll, they have been more likely than older Americans to view health care as a right, to support same-sex marriage, to oppose overseas adventurism and to believe that corporations and the wealthy should pay more in taxes. But instead of trying to appeal to them, the GOP has only moved rightward on these issues and others, and grown more strident, accelerating the flight of young people from the party.
This should be causing a much bigger freakout among Republicans, because there is almost no evidence that any of these young Democrats will get more conservative with age. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus is that partisanship hardens with time, and only truly disjunctive events, like a divorce or a move to a radically different part of the country, seem to have any discernible impact on voting and partisanship. And these kinds of changes do not generally happen frequently enough to cause large-scale shifts in generational partisanship.
The GOP has survived as a national force this long only because millennial turnout was dramatically lower than that of other age cohorts. But that’s beginning to change, too. In 2018, the combined turnout of those born after 1964 exceeded that of the boomers and their elders, the Silent Generation. Millennial voting doubled between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, and Zoomers debuted at 30 percent turnout in 2018, seven points higher than the numbers for early millennials in 2006.
Thirty years of partisan gridlock has been sustained by substantially higher turnout among older Americans. Those voters won’t be around forever, and the GOP’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has (almost certainly temporarily) given Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden an edge with the elderly. But unless the GOP figures out a way to gain a substantial edge with a large bloc of incoming 18-year-olds, the party will find that its preferred tactic of voter suppression will not be sufficient to avoid a long epoch as a national minority party destined to suffer repeated landslide drubbings, possibly beginning in November.