Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Partisan Generation Gap Is Alive and Well

One of the more interesting characteristics of the Obama presidency has been the emergence of a large and persistent generation gap in partisan voting preferences. As recently as the 2000 election, there was virtually no apparent association between age and vote choice: according to the national exit polls that year, Al Gore won 48 percent of the vote among citizens aged 18–29, 48 percent among those aged 30–49, 50 percent among those aged 50–64, and 51 percent among those 65 or older. In 2004, John Kerry only ran 7 points better among voters under the age of 30 (54 percent) compared to those aged 65 or older (47 percent).

Four years later, Obama received 66 percent of the under-30 vote compared to just 45 percent of the 65-and-over vote—a difference of 21 points. Obama's reelection in 2012 looked a lot like 2008: he won 60 percent of the under-30 vote and 44 percent of the over-65 vote, producing a 16-point gap. But Obama seemed to be a candidate whose political style was particularly well-suited to courting younger voters (and whose race might be expected to disproportionately cost him votes among the elderly), and he ran against two Republican opponents who were 25 and 14 years his senior. It was not outside the realm of possibility that the age divide in presidential voting reflected variation in the personal appeal of the candidates among Americans of different generations as well as any disagreements over ideology or issue priorities between younger and older voters.

What if the Democrats nominated someone who was a 68-year-old veteran of the political arena and who lacked Obama's natural hipness and ability to personify "change"? What if the Republicans nominated a candidate who lacked ties to their own party's traditionally stodgy national leadership and who ran as an unconventional outsider? Might we expect to find a significant narrowing of the Obama-era generation gap under such circumstances?

Well, we might...but so far it doesn't seem to be happening. Two post-convention national polls this week suggest that the Clinton-Trump contest may well produce a large generation gap just like the Obama-McCain and Obama-Romney elections:

A Public Policy Polling survey found Clinton leading Trump by 17 points among voters aged 18–29 (with an unusually high 15 percent undecided rate, probably mostly comprised of young Democratic-leaning voters who supported Bernie Sanders and have yet to rally around Clinton) and 19 points among voters aged 30–45. Trump led by 5 points in the 46–65 age range and by 4 points among those older than 65.

A CNN poll gave Clinton a 33-point lead among voters under the age of 45 and Trump a 4-point lead among voters aged 45 or older. This poll found Trump with a 19-point advantage among voters over 65.

It's not unusual for results among specific age groups to vary from poll to poll due to sampling error; what's important here is the overall pattern of correlation between age and partisan alignment, which is apparent in both surveys. Younger voters strongly preferred Sanders to Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and her favorability ratings in Gallup polls were actually weakest among the youngest generation once the Democratic nomination contest heated up early this year. But these young voters also appear particularly skeptical of Trump, and their collective affinity for the Obama-led Democratic Party seems to be fully intact even though Obama himself is no longer on the ballot.

The relationship between age and partisanship is not merely a short-term curiosity. Political science research demonstrates that citizens often develop attachments to a favorite party during their political coming-of-age period in young adulthood that can solidify into a lifelong voting habit. For example, many Americans who reached voting age during the Great Depression and presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt were still likely to support Democratic candidates like Bill Clinton in their golden years fifty and even sixty years later. The risk taken by Republicans in nominating Trump thus does not merely encompass this year's election, but could potentially extend to damaging the party's reputation among a cohort of young voters who have decades of electoral choices still ahead of them.