It has been nearly 14 years since the 2008 presidential election, which introduced the idea of an “Obama Coalition” of young and non-white voters that would allegedly make Democrats increasingly unbeatable as demographics shifted in the U.S. It has not, of course, worked out that way. While Democrats have indeed won the popular vote in every subsequent presidential election since 2008, they haven’t approached Obama’s 7.2 percent popular-vote margin, and they came close to losing the Electoral College in 2012 and 2020, along with actually losing it in 2016. Meanwhile, Democrats have lost two of the three midterms since 2008. And things aren’t exactly looking sunny for 2022.
There are several reasons why predictions about Democrats’ increasing demographic invincibility haven’t panned out. One key problem, which became clear after the Democrats’ catastrophic 2010 midterms loss, is that they’ve aligned themselves with elements of the electorate least likely to turn out to vote in non-presidential elections. This “midterm falloff” problem with respect to young and non-white voters abated significantly in 2018, which helped to make it the rare good midterm for Democrats.
Then in 2020, a different problem for Democrats began to emerge: flagging performance among non-white voters, particularly the fast-growing Latino category. This trend has made Democrats more dependent than ever on young voters, who also are disproportionately people of color and/or multiracial.
Millennials and Gen-Zers together went for Biden by about 20 points in 2020 and were carried by Democrats about two-to-one in 2018. Though they aren’t identical, the two younger generational groups are more like each other than any of the older cohorts, as Ron Brownstein notes at CNN:
Nearly half of Generation Z (currently defined as young people born between 1997 and 2012) are kids of color, more than one-third identify as secular without affiliation to any organized religion and a striking one-fifth in a recent Gallup survey identified as LGBTQ. Millennials (generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) don’t tilt quite so far toward change but are still far more diverse on each metric than older generations.
Both groups are also much more likely than their predecessors to believe in a strong problem-solving government and in the urgency of challenges like climate change. They seem poised to eventually come to the rescue of Democrats as they replace the older, whiter, and more conservative cohorts that are literally beginning to die out, as Brownstein explains:
The nonpartisan States of Change project … calculated that in 2016, millennials and their younger Generation Z counterparts accounted for a little less than one-third of eligible voters, far less than the nearly 45% represented by the baby boomers and older generations. By 2024, those numbers will more than flip: The group projects that millennials and Generation Z will account for nearly 45% of eligible voters, while baby boomers and older generations will shrink to about one-fourth. (Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, stay constant at about one-fourth of the electorate throughout that period.)
But these younger people will only save Democrats if they turn out to vote. And that seems unlikely in 2022, for two reasons. First, the strong across-the-board voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election appears to be an outlier; the election was basically a referendum on Donald Trump, whom younger voters really disliked. Second, while under-30 voters are not a ripe target for the Trump-era GOP, they aren’t very fond of Joe Biden, either. The president’s approval rating among 18- to 34-year-old voters according to CNN is currently 40 percent, quite low for such a pro-Democratic group. This makes robust youth turnout even more unlikely than it would have already been.
As Brownstein reports, under-30 turnout leapt from 13 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2018. And a study from Tufts University found that under-30 turnout also rose from 39 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2020. Without these surges, accompanied by a steady increase in the under-30 portion of the electorate, Republicans would almost certainly control Congress and Donald Trump would still be president.
Something closer to 2014 than to 2018 turnout among young voters is more likely in 2022, particularly given the restrictions on “convenience voting” (e.g., early voting by mail or in person) so many Republican-controlled state governments are enacting, which probably affect inexperienced voters more than others.
There are, however, some rays of midterm hope for Democrats. High levels of youth voting in 2018 and 2020 could help ensure that 2022 turnout won’t drop all the way back to 2014 levels, since past voting is correlated somewhat to future voting even in midterms. And one factor that boosted all sorts of Democratic turnout in 2018 — the bad policies, unsavory racism and sexism, and authoritarian contempt for democracy represented by Trump — isn’t entirely absent in 2022. This is one thing that the ex-president and his bitterest partisan opponents entirely agree on: the enormous desirability of a Trump-o-centric midterm election. Many Republicans, even those who love the man, privately wish he’d take a long vacation until mid-November. But he is almost biologically incapable of keeping a low profile.
The bottom line is that generational change in the electorate is more likely than ever to help Democrats, but not until 2024. What happens in the 2022 midterms is much iffier. Biden’s party needs some good real-world news between now and November, and if at all possible, an ever more reckless Trump restlessly preparing for 2024 with his usual mix of threats and self-aggrandizing lies.
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