vision 2020

Win or Lose, Republicans Need a Better Plan for the Future Electorate

Yo, Republicans! New generations are coming to take you down. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

It’s not a big secret that a Republican Party struggling to adjust to demographic change was thrown a big curve by Donald Trump’s successful 2016 electoral strategy. Instead of “reaching out” to the younger, more diverse, and most rapidly growing elements of the electorate (elements notably hostile to the GOP), Trump mobilized the electorate of the past, particularly older, non-college-educated, and Evangelical white voters that he persuaded to rally to his banner in unprecedented numbers and then turned out in exactly the right states. He is pursuing mostly the same strategy for reelection, though the old folks may be rebelling against his handing of COVID-19, even as he battles to attract conservative minority men generally and Latino anti-communists specifically. The idea of actually changing his party’s policies or rhetoric to adjust to a changing electorate, however, seems to elude Team Trump, which would prefer to discourage or discard the votes of those people.

The Trump strategy may or may not work in this particular election, and supplemental avenues to maximize the power that the GOP can wring out of a shrinking minority of the population (e.g., partisan and racial gerrymandering, aggressive use of the Senate filibuster, deployment of ideologically vetted lifetime judicial nominees) may or may not continue to hold back the day of demographic reckoning. But as Ron Brownstein explains, it’s not going to keep working indefinitely thanks to the rapid emergence of an electorate dominated by large millennial and Gen-Z populations that are sure to tilt Democratic unless something changes drastically.

In 2020, for the first time, Millennials and Gen Z (which comprise young adults born in 1981 or later) will equal Baby Boomers and prior generations (older adults born in 1964 or earlier) as a share of all Americans eligible to vote, according to a new study from the nonpartisan States of Change project. Because older voters typically turn out at higher rates than younger ones, the study forecasts that those earlier generations will still cast more ballots next month, by a margin of 43 percent to 32 percent. But in 2024, the two younger generations are expected to equal the older ones as a share of actual voters on Election Day. And by 2028, Millennials and Gen Z will dwarf the older generations as a share of both eligible and actual voters. That will be true not only nationally, but in all the crucial battleground states, according to previously unreleased projections provided to me by States of Change.

Given that the younger generations align much more closely with Democratic ideological views on almost all policy questions, this shift underscores the stakes in the generational roulette Trump has played by defining the GOP so narrowly around the priorities and preferences of his core groups: older, nonurban, non-college-educated, and evangelical white people.

It’s not simply that these generations are large and diverse and left-leaning: As they grow older, they will almost certainly increase their willingness to vote. And they really are different from earlier “young waves”:

Before Millennials entered the electorate in large numbers in the 2004 election, adults younger than 30 had generally tracked voting preferences of the country overall, without providing any particular advantage to Democrats; Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988, for instance, won them comfortably, according to exit polls.

But in the years since, the Democratic advantage among younger adults has swelled. In 2004, John Kerry won 54 percent of them. Barack Obama won 66 percent of them, compared with John McCain’s 32 percent in 2008, before topping Mitt Romney in 2012 by a narrower margin: 60 percent to 37 percent.  

In the 2018 midterms, 67 percent of under-30 voters supported Democrats. Seventy-seven-year-old centrist Joe Biden may not do that well, but you could imagine a more congruent future Democratic presidential candidate really kicking out the jams:

Terrance Woodbury, a Millennial Democratic consultant, recently told me that the attitudes expressed by younger generations on most policy issues mean Democrats should aspire to win three-fourths of their vote. One reason for that ambitious goal: Gen Z, like a youthful cavalry, will start entering the electorate in large numbers this year, and will reinforce the change that Millennials began. These young Americans, born from 1997 to 2012, are even more racially diverse than Millennials. Forty-nine percent of Gen Z are people of color, versus 45 percent of Millennials.

There is, of course, an underside to the emergence of generations so distinctly to the left of the rest of the population: potential ideological warfare within a Democratic Party seeking to accommodate change without alienating its older voters. The generation-based battles we witnessed in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential primaries could become more intense. And there’s also a serious risk that Democrats who have attracted millennial and Gen-Z voters with a cultural liberalism Republicans cannot even begin to match will find themselves simply incapable of defending the economic interests of the emerging electorate in an era of enormous inequality.

If these trends worry Democrats, they ought to frighten Republicans. Yes, they can hope young leftists split the Donkey Party or make it possible for the GOP to expand their old-electorate margins even more. They can also chip away at the periphery of the new electorate by appealing to religious conservatives or Latinos who now identify as “white.” But those are strategies of mitigation, not success. And even if Republicans can discard the more atavistic and openly racist features of Trumpism, they are lashed at the hip to conservative Christians whose worldviews are fundamentally incompatible with those of a large majority of young voters.

If Democrats are smart and Republicans cannot adapt, we could be transitioning before long out of an era in which neither major party had an enduring majority. We are about to conclude the tenth election cycle since 2000. There have been three very good Republican years (2002, 2010, and 2014), three very good Democratic years (2006, 2008, and 2018), and four where the two parties were very nearly even (2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016). Perhaps if Democrats sweep the presidential and congressional races this year Republicans could make a comeback in 2022 the way most “out” parties do in midterms when the other party has a trifecta. After that, though, all bets are off, and Republicans will likely need something new to survive as anything other than the north end of a southbound brontosaurus.

Republicans Need a Better Plan for the Future Electorate