The generation gap in the 2018 congressional election — the largest in history — offers a peek at what the contours of American politics could look like for decades to come. Here are the key takeaways.
We’re seeing the largest partisan age gap ever. We’ve never before had a mid-term election in which young and old were so far apart in their partisan preferences. Voters under the age of 30 favored Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by a whopping 67% to 32%, while voters over the age of 65 were evenly divided (50% R–48%D).
Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, there was virtually no partisan difference in the way young and old voted. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was the first in modern times to generate a significant age gap, as a racially diverse younger generation that was just aging into the electorate rallied to his candidacy.
The partisan age gap narrowed in the next two presidential elections but ballooned to record levels in 2018. Today’s young are in the vanguard of the political resistance to President Trump.
This generation gap is explained largely, but not entirely, by race. Eight in ten older voters are white, compared with barely half of younger voters. In 2018, Republican congressional candidates won the white vote by 54% to 44%, while Democratic candidates carried the non-white vote by 75% to 22%.
Within each racial group, however, there was also a generation gap. Younger whites voted more Democratic than older whites, younger blacks more Democratic than older blacks, younger Hispanics more Democratic than older Hispanics, and younger Asians more Democratic than older Asians.
Today’s age gap is larger than the gender gap. To put this generation gap in perspective, it’s useful to compare it with the gender gap, which has been a persistent feature of American elections for the past four decades. In 2018, 58% of women voted for Democratic candidates, compared with 47% of men – an 11 percentage point gender gap in the era of #MeToo. But the generation gap this year was nearly twice as big – 19 percentage points.
The future favors the young and the left. On the strength of that generation gap, Democratic congressional candidates won nearly 10 million more votes than GOP candidates in 2018, the biggest partisan margin in the history of mid-term elections. And while every campaign is different, the simple math of generational turnover is likely to create an electoral landscape that’s increasingly favorable to Democrats.
Each year 4 million teenagers turn 18 and become eligible voters. Most are progressive; nearly half are non-white. Each year 2.5 million Americans die. Most are older, conservative and white. Based on election day exit polls and other surveys, we’ve never had a generation of young adults whose core political values are so different from those of older adults, especially around issues of identity and diversity.
Within a decade millennials and post-mIllennials will make up the majority of voters. Tick by tock, one birth, one funeral and one high school graduation at a time, the American electorate is becoming more progressive.
The 2018 Congressional class is marked by youth and diversity. The White House and Congress are still led by politicians in their 70s, but there are signs that the generational torch is beginning to pass. The new members of Congress who’ll take their seats in January will be the youngest class in a decade – and the most diverse and most female class ever.
Young voters are unlikely to lean right as they age. To be sure, some generations grow more conservative as they grow older. That’s been the story of the huge baby boom generation. Most people don’t realize it, but the flower child generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s has voted net Republican throughput its adult life. A majority of boomers supported Trump in 2016 and GOP congressional candidates in 2018.
Still, millennials and post-millennials aren’t likely to follow that same arc. Their progressive values are closely tethered to their racial diversity, which won’t change as they age.
Turnout is a wild card. The more pressing political question about today’s young is not whether they’ll turn into conservatives as they grow older – it’s whether they’ll turn into voters.
In 2018 the turnout rate of voters under age 30 was 30% (up from 20% in 2014), while the turnout rate of full adult population was 50%. Turnout rates typically increase for generations as they mature into middle age, but there’s no assurance this will happen with today’s young.
Not only do the vast majority of millennials distrust political institutions, they don’t seem to have much faith in their fellow human beings. Just 19% say most people can be trusted, the lowest share recorded by any generation in the half century this question has been asked on nationwide surveys. Whatever the mix of causes — social media, toxic politics, fake news, rising inequality – it’s not a promising recipe for civic and political engagement.
The most important civic legacy today’s older adults can leave for the young is the simplest lesson of all: Democracy is a participatory sport. What a great mission for activists in the encore movement!
Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at Encore.org, is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown.
Published: December 17, 2018