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New Data on Younger Voters Is Fascinating

AP Photo/Matthew Brown

It's been long-held conventional wisdom that young people tend to lean to the left politically, then are likely to drift to the right as they earn more money, pay more taxes, get married, and have families.  By and large, this has held true.  Relatedly, there's a quote attributed to Winston Churchill -- quite possibly apocryphal in nature -- that echoes a similar sentiment: "If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain."  But Millennials have been different.  As a generation, we started off broadly left-leaning, and have remained so, raising alarm bells from GOP-aligned data analysts and pollsters like Kristen Soltis Anderson.  But as Sarah noted over the weekend, New York Times political data guru Nate Cohn is detecting movement on this front:


Fifteen years ago, a new generation of young voters propelled Barack Obama to a decisive victory that augured a new era of Democratic dominance. Fifteen years later, those once young voters aren’t so young — and aren’t quite so Democratic.  In the 2020 presidential election, voters who were 18 to 29 in 2008 backed Joe Biden by 55 percent to 43 percent, according to our estimates, a margin roughly half that of Mr. Obama’s 12 years earlier. The exit polls show it even closer, with Mr. Biden winning by just 51-45 among voters who were 18 to 27 in 2008...And last fall, the young voters of ’08 — by then 32 to 43 — preferred Democratic congressional candidates by just 10 points in Times/Siena polling...This shift toward the right among the young voters who propelled Mr. Obama to victory 15 years ago is part of a larger pattern: Over the last decade, almost every cohort of voters under 50 has shifted toward the right...

Cohn writes about years of Democratic hopes and Republican fears that Millennials would buck the trend and remain a reliably leftist voting bloc, which would lead to an era of dominance from Team Blue. But as he points out, traditionally-expected changes are indeed afoot. More specifics on the trends:

The shift to the right appears largest among the oldest “young” voters — the older millennials who came of age in a very different political era from today. Many of the issues that drew young voters to the Democrats in 2004 or 2008 — like the Iraq War or same-sex marriage — may no longer be issues at all. Republicans may have even reversed their former disadvantage on some issues, whether by sometimes opposing foreign intervention, winning some voters with colorblind messaging on race, or by becoming the “anti-establishment” party....In contrast, the shift to the right is more modest among younger voters — especially those who came of age after Mr. Obama, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign and Donald J. Trump. Today’s politics are still mostly defined by the same issues that brought these voters to the Democrats. As long as that’s true, they may well remain by their side.


As an older Millennial myself, this rings true anecdotally, in addition to the data.  Conservatives and Republicans still have a lot of work to do among younger voters, who represent the ascendant generations.  They ignore these challenges at their own peril.  That said, perhaps the picture is less bleak than once feared.  Also, the generation directly above us, Gen X (born approximarely 1965 to 1980), has moved distinctly to the right, as Politico explored roughly a year ago: "Generation X is safely Republican," the article asserted, following up with evidence: 

In a poll released in late April by Marist/NPR that separated voters by generation, Generation X had the highest level of disapproval for Biden and were the generation most likely to say they would vote for a Republican candidate in the midterms if they were held that day....While voters have historically tended to be more conservative as they age, that has accelerated with Generation X. In fact, Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, told me that Generation X has now become the most conservative generation, surpassing the Boomers in their rightward tilt.

Gen Z, the youngest voting generation (born after 1996), is comparatively very left-wing. That being said, this emerging data is fascinating:


It looks like generation gaps will remain interesting phenomena to track, but perhaps political and social gender gaps within generations will be an even more alient factor. This could have implications not only on voting patterns and electoral results, but also on the future of relationships and family dynamics.  I'll leave you with this:

Conservative teenagers are, in general, significantly happier than their liberal peers, according to a study conducted by Columbia University. The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs," was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health in December and while its findings were striking, the reason behind the trend is unclear...The research concluded that "conservatives reported lower average depressive affect, self-derogation, and loneliness scores and higher self-esteem scores than all other groups...Columbia University Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi reported in an article for American Affairs that conservatives don't just report higher levels of happiness, they also report having higher levels of meaning in their lives. "Conservatives are more likely to be patriotic and religious," he wrote. "They are more likely to be (happily) married and less likely to divorce. Religiosity, in turn, correlates with greater subjective and objective well-being. So does patriotism. So does marriage." Consequently, "conservatism itself would be largely incidental to the happiness gap," he added. So "A liberal who was similarly religious, or patriotic, or had a similarly happy marriage, would be expected to have similar levels of happiness as conservative peers."

Given the crisis-level epidemic of anxiety and depression among American young people, this seems like a sociological phenomenon very much worth exploring further.

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