Is Trump Creating Lifelong Democrats?


For any political party, prospects for future elections always remain on the mind. Power in the present is nice, yes, and we love to have it, but that grip on the levers is often fleeting.

Take, for instance, the Democrats. Spend five minutes on any conservative site and they will be quick to remind you of the crushing losses the party shouldered under Obama. You could cite plenty of reasons why it may have happened under that particular leadership, be it apathy toward down-ballot elections or unfair attacks leveled against him. Regardless of your reason, the fact remains that the party had an abysmal hold after Trump’s stunning victory last November.

I would be remiss if not to mention this article from FiveThirtyEight, comparing the losses under Obama to other presidents historically. I find the most salient point made is that these losses were not particularly unique to Obama’s presidency. An issue that the party faces now, though, or at least it certainly did in 2016, is a lack of bench.

Hillary Clinton faced a tough primary challenge against Bernie Sanders, who made her stroll to the DNC Convention a lot more tedious than any of us expected. That disruption seemed to have unearthed the internal discord between various wings of the Democratic party, but it also showed the importance of one particular demographic.

In the beginning, I mentioned that a grip on power can often be fleeting for political parties, and for the GOP that seems to be most clearly through the divisions in age groups. For 2016 in particular, the divide is rather stark: for 18-29, Clinton won by 18 points. She also carried 30-44 year olds, by a smaller but significant margin of 8 points.

The GOP carried the older cohorts, 45-64 and 65+ but about the same margins in each instance, approximately 9 points. The numerous factors contributing to how people may choose to vote notwithstanding, age seems like a decent indicator. Consider that the two older groups vote in higher relative numbers than younger ones, and it makes sense that their influence on elections can be outsized.

But life goes on, and at some point the voters of today will be the voters of yesterday. Who then replaces them? Those coming of age today. So, if you had to bet on the future, it would be safer to target the concerns of the younger generations, to win the hearts and minds of the youth. If the GOP wants to retain their majorities, they will have to ensure that young voters begin to vote more often and more conservatively.

That said, recent elections held in 2017 have not netted positive results for the Republicans. If we take the presidential election as a baseline, we can say that age group is about D +18. For these purposes, I am going to look at more recent special election results, not because they were won by Democrats, per se, but because they were more widely followed and are likely more indicative of trends writ large. As for the elections in MT, GA, SC and the like, the numbers track about the same.

First, in a blue state that has demonstrated a willingness to elect Republicans before: New Jersey. Chris Christie won two terms as governor here, even though his numbers are horrific as he prepares to leave office. In the NJ special election, the numbers breakdown as such:

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 10.01.36 AM.png

NBC separated the numbers into a binary, which elucidates where the divide hits in New Jersey: voters younger than 65 were D +20, and voters 65 and above were R +11.

That same day, Virginia also held elections. The numbers in the Old Dominion were no less forgiving for the GOP, especially considering Virginia as a purple, albeit more blue than not, state.

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 9.42.04 AM.png

Perhaps the most interesting race in the past year was the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ old seat in Alabama. This election may very well have been an aberrance, given the uniquely divisive opponent Doug Jones faced, Judge Roy Moore.

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 9.42.21 AM.png

To me, the biggest takeaway here is the same for both parties: the younger vote matters. While they are not the largest swath of the electorate in relative terms, they are the electorate that will remain voting for the next sixty years. The numbers by which Democrats are winning those votes in recent elections do not bode well for the party in power.

While many might contest this upshot, maybe by suggesting that people become more conservative in old age, consider your friends and family. How many of them have gone from left-wingers to tea-partiers? There may be some, but I would contest that by this Pew Research study. In general, political affinity is set relatively early and remains stable throughout your life.

Furthermore, as the article drew from a Columbia University study, major political figures and events can shape the ways certain generations vote. If you became an adult under FDR, you likely voted for Democrats the rest of your life. Positive experiences in early adulthood with a particular administration seemed to imprint on voters and carried on throughout future elections.

Now, in the present, the same metric should be applied. For the 18-29 age group, the lion’s share will only remember a few major events, politically (to be fair, most people do not obsess over politics as much as some of us). Maybe someone else might disagree, but our memory is largely made up of the tail-end of Bush and the Iraq War, the entire presidency of Obama, and then the election of Trump.

In the most recent Gallup data, Trump currently holds a 26% approval rating with 18-29 year olds, and a 35% approval rating with 30-49 year olds. On his last day in office, Obama held a 74% approval rating with 18-29 and 60% with 30-49.

If young voters actually voted in meaningful numbers, elections could change drastically. It really isn’t too surprising that people who will skip classes they pay thousands for in college might not bother to vote, but that trend should turn around upon graduation. The current political climate, if harnessed properly, could catalyze young voters and create life-long Democrats.

Kirk KovachComment