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A Generational Cliff

Split Ticket has devoted significant coverage to the partisanship of young voters. Whether through analyzing individual-level data in voter files or by aggregating and examining exit poll estimates from the last four decades, the story we find remains consistent: young voters are extremely Democratic, and more importantly, ahistorically so.

This analysis can be extended to the state and county levels as well. Many states allow voters to register with a party, which reveals deeper insight into the partisanship of individual communities. 2020 data aggregated by TargetSmart for these states allows us to map and examine the partisan registration of young voters and compare them to the registration of all members of the 2020 electorate. In most areas, this gives us an idea of how much more Democratic young voters are than the overall electorate.

This article is not meant to forecast an emerging Democratic majority. Just because young voters currently lean significantly more Democratic than their elders does not mean that they will continue to do so for their entire voting lives.

It’s also important to remember that registration lag in specific areas reduces the predictive value of partisan affiliation, notably seen in the ancestrally-Democratic states of West Virginia, Louisiana, and Kentucky. These states were once friendly (and even exclusive) to state-level Democrats when many older voters first registered. Since then, their ballot-box preferences have changed, while their registrations in county files have not. Young voters, on the other hand, registered more recently, and so their choices better reflect contemporary sensibilities. This effect also manifests in formerly-Republican areas, where many registered Republicans have abandoned the party.

But for most states, partisan registration is a fairly reliable signal of party preference that aligns with vote choice to within a few percentage points. We can therefore use it to gain reliable insight into the preferences and allegiances of young voters (specifically, those under 30), especially as compared to the electorate at large.

First, let’s examine the two-way partisan registration of the 2020 electorate for each state where this data exists. With the exception of the aforementioned states with registration lag, we can see a strong correlation between a state’s partisanship and its registration — states like New York, Oregon, and California are heavily Democratic, while states like Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming are extremely Republican, reflecting their expected voting behavior.

Unsurprisingly, traditional battlegrounds have a more split partisan registration — Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arizona, New Hampshire, and North Carolina were all hotly contested in 2016 and 2020; the partisan registration of the electorate in each of these states was within a few percent of the true partisanship.

But when we look at the partisanship of young voters in the 2020 electorate, we see something very different. In each of the listed battlegrounds, they are heavily Democratic, with the exception of Iowa. This difference suggests that as today’s young voters grow older, and increase their share of the electorate, the GOP will need to gain support somewhere in the voter pool to offset impending losses in modern battlegrounds.

If Republicans fail to close this massive generational gap, the existing large Democratic advantage among young voters will bring cataclysmic electoral destruction to the party, potentially snuffing out “paths to 270” in presidential elections. The state-level differences between young voters and voters at-large exposes the steep generational cliff the Republicans are hurtling towards as the GOP-leaning baby boomers come to age out of the electorate.

Some swing states, like Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Colorado, have a youth electorate that leans over ten points more Democratic than the state overall. This gap is especially salient in Nevada and Arizona, where young voters are over 25% more Democratic than the electorate as a whole. Even in milder cases like North Carolina (a Trump +1 state where federal Democratic candidates have repeatedly come up short over the last decade), the 7-point registration gap could be enough on its own to keep Democrats strongly competitive, even in the face of GOP-friendly trends with rural and retiree populations.

When we step beyond the state level and examine the data at county-level granularity, interesting regional trends appear. For instance, the urban-rural divide remains extremely stark across generational lines — in most urban and suburban cores around the country, young voters are extremely Democratic, whereas in most rural areas, they are very Republican. Revealingly, some rural, Trump-voting counties in eastern Kentucky have pluralities of young Democrats, suggesting that some historical party preferences remain even among the youth.

The county-level partisan registration gap reveals that the urban-rural polarization is actually starker among young voters than among the at-large electorate. In many rural areas, young voters are even more Republican than the older generations were, whereas in urban and suburban counties, young voters are significantly more Democratic than the full electorate. While some of this undoubtedly has to do with the aforementioned registration lag among older voters, especially in areas like Appalachia, a good portion may also be attributable to the actual preferences of young voters diverging by region and density. For instance, the map is probably correct in suggesting that younger voters in California’s Orange County are significantly more Democratic than the Biden +9 county as a whole.

However, comparison to a baseline should not mask the reality that young voters in heavily rural areas still lean extremely Republican. When contrasted with the massive Democratic lean of young voters in urban and suburban areas, one thing becomes clear: urban-rural polarization persists across generations, and absent a massive realignment, will likely linger for at least another generation.

Another key question that may arise with this analysis is the lean of young independents. The data presented above reflects two-way partisanship, ignoring the relatively high rates of independent affiliation among young voters. However, prior Split Ticket research suggests that young independent voters as a whole aren’t likely to be that much more conservative or liberal than registered partisans, meaning that Republicans probably shouldn’t rely on this sub-demographic to magically fix the generational gap.

Contrary to the “young people will become more conservative” notion that dominates modern thinking, research suggests that ideology actually remains largely stable over the long term. This means that the Republicans will probably have to reckon with this massive partisan deficit at some point.

What can they do to bridge the chasm? This is less clear. Generally speaking, young voters are a cohort both demographically and ideologically more hostile to a conservative party. Americans under 30 are more likely to be nonwhite, to be irreligious, to identify as LGBT, and to be college-educated — all traits that encourage opposition to the Republican Party.

They also happen to be much more socially liberal, have lower levels of racial resentment, and are much more likely to support increased government spending. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young voters are also the most opposed to Donald Trump, whose influence continues to dominate the Republican Party at the moment. All of these stances put young voters at the crossroads of a sharp ideological conflict with the Republican Party — analysis from the New York Times suggested that young voters who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 were the most likely to defect to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Reversing this will likely require the GOP to pivot from their current image as the Gen X- and baby boomer-dominated Republican Party of Donald Trump, at a minimum.

Again, this is not meant to forecast an emerging Democratic majority. There are only two parties, and in American politics, there are limited means of expressing disapproval beyond voting for the other side. As a result, majorities and coalitions are tenuous and fleeting, and extended dominance remains elusive for parties. While Republicans may well enter a period of malaise and lag due to their historic deficit with the youth electorate, history suggests that it is more likely that the party eventually forcibly readjusts and pivots if it does cause sustained and excessive losses.

But history is meant to be a guide for political parties, not a crutch or a panacea. Countering the generational cliff will eventually require serious and possibly drastic action from the GOP. So far, however, it does not seem like this is anywhere near their list of priorities.

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