Republicans have long known that America’s rising generations were going to be a problem for their party. The only questions have been “How big?” and “How soon?”
The bulk of Americans born between 1981 and 1996 saw Bill Clinton preside over an age of (relative) peace and prosperity — and then George W. Bush steer their nation into failed wars and economic collapse. Zoomers, meanwhile, are coming of age amid, well, [gestures broadly at a landscape littered with foreclosed houses, police executions, pandemic breadlines, and melting ice sheets, all watched over by a billionaire Fox News addict who’s focused on his tweets].
Political science research suggests that a voter’s partisan preferences tend to be deeply informed by their evaluations of presidential performance in adolescence and early adulthood. Americans who came of age during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies leaned Democratic for years after. Those who attained a sense of self amid Jimmy Carter’s losing battle against stagflation — and/or Ronald Reagan’s boom times — remained disproportionately Republican as they aged.
Thus, millennials and Zoomers were already likely to lean left, even if their generations hadn’t been more diverse, highly educated, and atheistic than their predecessors. But they are. And since all of those traits correlate with ideological liberalism, it’s none too surprising that the kids are all left (or, almost all left, anyway).
A new poll from Axios and SurveyMonkey-Tableau reveals that — despite our nation’s deeply ingrained regional political divisions — young Americans are rejecting conservatism from sea-to-shining sea, with only a few stray patches of red in between. In a survey of 640,328 likely voters across the country, Axios found voters under 35 backing Biden in 40 of 50 states. Young voters broke for Trump in five, and split their votes about evenly in the remaining states.
In an ominous sign for the GOP’s future viability in the Electoral College, young voters in light-red Sun Belt states are very Democratic, with those in Texas and Georgia backing Biden over Trump by roughly 20 points. In South Carolina, meanwhile, young voters lean blue by 13. Across this year’s most hotly contested battlegrounds — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Biden’s lead among young voters never dips below 18 percentage points.
Thanks to his strength among seniors, Biden is less dependent on high youth turnout than Hillary Clinton was in 2016. But if younger voters do turnout at a historically high rate, they could deliver Democrats a landslide large enough to flip state legislatures across the country, and deliver Chuck Schumer a Senate majority with a couple votes to spare.
There are a few reasons to believe that “America’s future” will make its presence felt this November. For one thing, the millennial generation is starting to enter its prime voting years. Under normal circumstances, we might be one presidential cycle away from the cohort becoming a reliable turnout bloc. But as the Democratic pollster William Jordan wrote in 2017, there was reason to suspect Donald Trump might accelerate millennials’ political maturation:
[A] voter stops being under-represented in the electorate at about age 40 — which is the age of some of the oldest Millennials in around 2022 … It’s not obvious that the Millennial Reckoning will come in 2018, or even 2020. That said, based on data from past elections, it’s when a cohort starts to nudge up against their fourth or fifth presidential election cycle that they start seeing real improvements in turnout rates — and that’s about where Millennials are now. Looking just at how Boomers and Gen-Xers behaved around a similar time, we’d expect Millennial turnout to increase by around 5 or 6 points between 2016 and 2020.
We haven’t yet seen what it looks like when Millennials come into their own as a voting bloc, and it will almost certainly happen. The only question is, will it happen gradually, or suddenly? Is there anything going on in American politics that might spur an unusual lurch forward among the nation’s youngest, most diverse and most educated generation?
The 2018 midterm results offered evidence for the “lurch” thesis. Millennial turnout in that election jumped 20 points from where it had been in 2014 (the previous midterm). What’s more, in the first midterm that any Zoomers were old enough to vote in, 30 percent of those eligible cast a ballot. That is a notable improvement on the 23 percent rate that Gen X and millennials posted in their respective first midterms.
As of this writing, a record-shattering 45 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 election. This is, of course, partly a reflection of pandemic-induced shift in voting methods, as more Americans avail themselves of mail ballots. But combined with polling data on intention to vote, the early returns suggest that the 2020 election could inspire the highest U.S. voter turnout in more than a century. It is possible that this surge is being driven by infrequent older voters making a point to cast a ballot this year, rather than by a surge in millennial and Zoomer participation. But all else equal, high overall turnout is a positive indicator for unusually high young voter turnout.
On the other hand, the pandemic has dealt a major blow to the Democratic Party’s voter-registration efforts. Recent data from the key swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania show Republicans are adding voters to the rolls far faster than Democrats. According to Democratic operatives I’ve spoken to, this is partly because their party is more reliant on registering voters when they interface with the state — say, during a trip to the DMV — or else, on college campuses, or in high-school seniors’ classrooms. The drop-off in public congregation at schools and government facilities has thus prevented Democrats from fully capitalizing on generational churn: There are a lot of young, left-leaning adults in the U.S. who would have registered to vote in a year without a pandemic, but will not do so in 2020.
Regardless, the future is coming, if not this November, then one in the near future. (Which is a large part of why the conservative movement has been transitioning from covert attacks on democracy to open advocacy for minority rule.)