By David Thornton
The group was one of the core areas of support for Barack Obama and conventional wisdom has held for years that young voters trend liberal and then become more conservative as they get older. A recent study from Pew Research disputes the conventional wisdom and has alarming news for the GOP.
The Pew study included several surveys of voters of all ages over a 15-month period from December 2015 through March 2017. The survey found that about one in ten voters from both parties switched parties at some point during the 2016 election season. The numbers were similar for all age groups across party lines with one exception.
Almost half (44 percent) of Republicans aged 18-29 left the party at some point during the campaign. About half (21 percent) of these young Republicans returned by March, but 23 percent still identified or leaned Democrat two months into the Trump presidency.
“What makes these figures even more striking is the stability of nearly every other age group within both parties,” Republican pollster Kristin Soltis Anderson writes in the Washington Examiner. “On the Democratic side, roughly three-quarters of their voters stuck with the Democratic Party through and through — including those younger voters who supposedly felt so disillusioned with the Democratic Party over the treatment of Bernie Sanders.”
The leftward movement of young Republicans was partially offset in 2016 by the rightward movement of older voters. About a quarter of Baby Boomer Democrats left the party with 14 percent still identifying as Republican in March 2017.
“These voters no doubt played a large role in the success of Trump in states and counties with many ‘Reagan Democrats’ who were drawn to the GOP with Trump’s message,” Anderson says.
Nevertheless, Anderson sees long-term problems for the GOP. “The half of young Republicans who wobbled or left the party altogether were die-hard enough to be on board with the GOP all the way through the moment that Trump sat well atop the primary polls,” she says. Young Republicans who deserted the party to Barack Obama, because of the government shutdown or due to the party’s early embrace of Trump were already gone by December 2015 when the survey started.
Current trends suggest that young voters are also not becoming more conservative as they get older. Anderson pointed out in a separate column that both Generation X and Millennial voters are moving more to the left as they age.
“The Boomers got more conservative, Gen X got a little more Democratic, and over the last 10 years, the millennials got more liberal,” Anderson says. “It’s not just that Democrats have held a consistent advantage over the GOP with this generation (and they have — by massive margins), it’s that the proportion calling themselves liberal Democrats has increased substantially since the 2012 election.”
Demographic trends are not written in stone. The shift of young voters to the left is not foreordained for upcoming elections, but business-as-usual conservative politics will not win the group to the Republican Party. It will likely require an earthshaking event or a politician with a special connection to younger voters.