Millennials Can’t Save the Democratic Party
But Republicans had better hope they grow up — and quickly
Ron Brownstein had an interesting piece in The Atlantic this weekend contemplating whether millennials, on the cusp of becoming the electorate’s predominant generational cohort, can be counted on to “save” the Democratic Party. The provocative query calls to mind the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis, only with age as a stand-in for demographics. And indeed the two are intertwined — as Brownstein notes, more than 40 percent of millennials are non-white.
The basic premise is that millennials are disproportionately hostile to Trump, that there is significant slack (and therefore upside) in their voting habits, and that we’re in the midst of a generational inflection point where they stand to go from making up a co-equal third of the voting-eligible population to nearly half of the electoral denominator.
As Will Jordan rightly notes in a smart post drilling down on Brownstein’s thesis, such a yawning age gap is a relatively new (if not anomalous) phenomenon. That millennials’ relative enthusiasm for President Obama has conveyed in the form of antipathy toward President Trump is notable in and of itself. While our collective political memory sometimes strains to harken back before hope and change, it should be stipulated that young voters were not always considered a lock for Dems.
Ultimately, however, discerning the political attitudes of young people is the electoral equivalent of trying to categorize Top 40 radio as a discrete musical style. The contemporary label is inherently fluid and fleeting, and trends can be better observed along other axes. As Brownstein himself notes, voting patterns among millennials hewed rather closely to that of their socioeconomic peers. For instance while Trump remained relatively flat among white millennials overall, carrying the under-30 group by 4 points, there were pronounced differences along educational lines:
Clinton routed Trump among college-educated white young people by 15 percentage points, according to exit-poll results provided by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta. Trump, in turn, crushed Clinton among white young people without a college degree by an 18-point margin.
The deep socioeconomic split reflects Trump’s performance among whites overall more than it does anything unique to millennials. This 33 point education gap closely mirrors a 35 point divide among the broader demographic. A similar dynamic played out along regional lines. While Trump fared no better than Mitt Romney among the under-30 set, he made up for coastal routs by making significant strides in the Rust Belt:
Trump substantially reduced the GOP deficit among those younger voters compared with Romney in 2012 in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and he actually carried voters under 30 in Iowa. In all of those states except Michigan, Clinton’s vote share among those younger than 30 fell by double digits compared with Obama’s, while Trump improved by 7 to 9 percentage points over Romney.
Clearly when it comes to voting behavior there are far stronger correlations than age.
So perhaps the more interesting question is how millennials differ from previous generations in ways that cut across these demographic subgroups. They’re less religious. They’re more educated. They’re less wealthy than their parents were at their age; and they’re more likely to be single. Some of these characteristics are a function of recent economic malaise. Some are culturally endemic. But all of them have conspired to produce a generation that lags significantly behind its parents and grandparents when it comes to career trajectory, homeownership, and family formation.
This should be a major cause for concern among Republicans. Not just because it delays important milestones, but because it renders the party’s appeal indefinitely moot for a broad swath of the electorate. An economically stunted, socially stilted generation mired in transitional purgatory is a far bigger threat to the GOP than the sort of partisan imprinting pondered in Brownstein’s piece. Whether Trump ends up as a blight, a credit, or merely a blip to the GOP, partisan imprinting is secondary to the impact of broader generational growing pains.
The apocryphal trope about young conservatives (no heart) and old liberals (no head) bears a kernel of truth as our values inevitably evolve over the course of our lives. But a failure to launch that has left tens of millions underemployed, trillions in debt, and living at home to unprecedented levels presents an existenial threat to any such evolution.
Young people grow up. Republicans are always going to fare better among the married than the unmarried; among the sub- and exurbanites than city-dwellers. But if an age cohort chooses to put off these steps indefinitely, or — more insidiously — if they’re locked out thanks to abysmal job prospects or an inflated, sclerotic housing market, the priorities that animate conservative principles are barely going to register on their radar.
And at that point you have bigger problems than mere electoral politics.