Simon Rosenberg
Aug 1 · 6 min read

Let’s say you were born in 1974 and are 45 years old today. You were 14 when George H.W. Bush was elected to office and during your teenage years, those when political understandings first form and begin to harden, the economy fell into recession, the deficit exploded, an era of deep military engagement in the Middle East began, and Bush became one of only three Presidents in the post-war period to lose re-election. But then in your twenties this all changed, as Bill Clinton was elected President and the economy boomed, the Internet age began, deficits became surpluses, and median income climbed by over $7,000 per household. The US spent its time in these years fashioning a new post-Cold War order through diplomacy and trade agreements, rather than through military conflict.

This era of economic prosperity and peace came to a halt in your late-twenties and early-thirties with a second Bush, 9/11, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic and financial crisis in 75 years. Millions of jobs were lost, median income fell by almost 10%, and the stock market collapsed. But then in your mid-thirties Obama, and all that he represented, was elected President. The economy recovered, uninsured rates plummeted, the deficit came down, and global cooperation on things like climate and trade once again took precedence over military conflict.

Then came the shock and the ugliness of the Trump Presidency, starting with Russia’s extraordinary intervention on his behalf, and continuing with his giving trillions in tax cuts to those who needed it the least, threatening health care for tens of millions, subjecting women and kids to inhumane conditions at the border, and tearing at the country’s broader social fabric though his relentless attacks on women and people of color.

Source: Federal Reserve, Compiled by NDN Staff

Note — Change in the deficit refers to the difference in the annual fiscal deficit between each President’s first and last year in office

It is no wonder that if this is your lived experience, you would lean towards the Democrats today. The two Democratic presidents in your lifetime produced long economic booms, vast improvements in healthcare, and global cooperation and respect, while the three Republican presidents brought recession, rising deficits, disastrous adventurism abroad, and well, Trump. Furthermore, if you are under 45, your life has been shaped by the rise of a truly global economy, an interconnected world enabled by the Internet, a far more diverse population here at home, and important steps towards greater equality for all. This is the world you know — and it is almost as if Trump and the current GOP have risen to roll back and reject all that you understand America to be.

Not surprisingly, all of this has led to what is becoming a truly consequential divide in American politics — voters under 45 have become overwhelmingly Democratic. While these voters had been trending more Democratic in recent years, in 2018 there was an unprecedented and consequential shift among them. In the elections from 2000 to 2016, the Democrats beat the Republicans among under 45s by an average of 6 points, with Republicans even besting the Dems in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, the Dem margin was just 2 and 5 points, and in the 2016 general election it was 14 points. In 2018, however, the Democratic advantage in this group exploded to 25 points, 58–33. Over 45s were 50–49 for the Republicans, so these younger Americans were responsible for the entire margin in the Democratic 9 point win last year.

Source: CNN/NYT Exit Polls Compiled by NDN Staff

This rejection of the GOP by younger Americans has continued into 2019 with significant implications for the 2020 elections. The most recent Civiqs tracking poll has Trump’s approval with voters under 50 at -25 (36–61), while Quinnipiac’s July poll has his approval with under 50s at -20 (37–57). Politico’s most recent poll which had Trump’s overall approval at -10, similar to where he was on election day in 2018, has Trump’s approval with under 45s at -21 (37–58). Civiqs has similar numbers in the battleground of AZ, MI, NC, PA, and WI. This trend has also begun to show up in early Trump vs Biden head to head polling. In the Quinnipiac poll, which Biden leads 53–40, under 50 voters support Biden by a 21 point margin (56–35), while in the Politico poll, which has Biden leading by 11 points overall, under 45s are for Biden by 21 points (48–27).

The data above also confirms an important part of our analysis about the importance of lived experience in shaping the views of younger Americans. If what we assert is true, we would expect to find those closer to the positive memory of Reagan to be more Republican, and those more distant from that memory and more influenced by the experience since 1989 of good Dems/not so good Rs to be more Democratic. We see that again and again in the data above but also in the 2018 national numbers. Voters 40–49 went Democratic by 6 points, 30–39 by 22 points, 25–29 by 33 points, and 18–24 by 37 points. Under 45s averaged 6 points net Democratic from 2000 to 2016, and were plus 25 in 2018. Voters aged 18–29 averaged 15 points net Democratic in those same 2000 to 2016 elections, and ended up plus 35 Dem in 2018. These are huge and unusual shifts in such large age cohorts in our electorate. Part of the reason this is happening is that each year the number of people under 45 who have a positive view of Republicans dwindles as they age out, which means that if current trends hold the under 45 vote will be increasingly Democratic in the coming years.

Source: CNN Exit Polls Compiled by NDN Staff

Just consider what happens now if these enormous and unprecedented margins among voters who could be as much as 45% of the electorate in 2020 lock in and hold over the coming decades. Because of the contrast of good Democratic presidents and bad Republican ones over a 30 year period, the country could continue to shift profoundly towards the Democrats, as it did in the 1930s through the 1960s. Democrats have already won more votes in 6 of the past 7 Presidential elections with much smaller margins with younger voters. If these current trends continue we are looking at a completely different political landscape in the coming decades, one which is likely to leave the Democrats in a very dominant position.

For Democrats what this means is they must continue to re-orient their politics around younger Americans. This means shifting more official and campaign resources to engaging these voters, learning about their world view and priorities, advancing younger leaders to positions of authority and power, and embracing the post-TV/social media landscape they inhabit. As a strategist with the DCCC last cycle, I can tell you we did this as a matter of national strategy, and not only did we see the best results with young people of any election in recent history, their turnout went up too. Looking at the chart below one would imagine top 2020 Dem strategists are researching ways to get under 45 turnout up into the high 40s and low 50s — a shift that would have a profound and lasting impact on American politics.

Source: Census Bureau

As for the Republicans, what is there to say? States with large numbers of young people, like CA and TX, have seen dramatic shifts away from Republicans in recent years. These trends represent an existential threat to the Republican Party as we know it today. We’ve already seen one possible future for the GOP — California, home of two powerful recent GOP Presidents Nixon and Reagan, has seen the Republican Party essentially disappear.

We will be debating Donald Trump’s legacy for generations. But it is clear now that handing the keys to power to the Democrats for decades to come may be the part of his legacy with the greatest domestic political consequence.

NDN’s Chris Taylor co-authored this piece, and did most of the research and analysis.

Simon Rosenberg

Written by

I run NDN/NPI, a DC think tank. Clinton & DNC alum, Tufts grad, Aspen Crown Fellow. Father of 3 great kids, truly lucky husband. Proud globalist.

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