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.
His 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’ve reached a point at which they stand to go from making up a third of the voting-eligible population to nearly half of it.
As Will Jordan rightly notes in a smart post drilling down on this thesis, such a yawning age gap is a relatively new (if not anomalous) phenomenon. That Millennials’ relative enthusiasm for President Obama has morphed seamlessly into antipathy toward President Trump is notable in and of itself. While it can sometimes be hard to recall a time before hope and change, it’s worth remembering that young voters were not always considered a lock for Dems.
Chart via Will Jordan (Borderline)
Ultimately, however, discerning the political attitudes of young people is like 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 (under age 30) overall, carrying that group by four 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. The 33-point education gap among Millennials 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. And the answer is that they’re less religious; they’re more educated; they’re less wealthy than their parents were at the same 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 previous ones when it comes to career trajectory, home ownership, 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 to a broad swath of the electorate indefinitely moot. 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 or a credit to the GOP, his impact on Millennial voting patterns will be secondary to that 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 of young people underemployed, trillions in debt, and living at home in unprecedented numbers presents an existential threat to any such evolution.
Young people get older. Republicans are always going to fare better among the married than among the unmarried, and among the sub- and ex-urbanites than among city-dwellers. But if Millennials choose to put off the traditional rites of passage into adulthood indefinitely, or — what would be even more insidious — if abysmal job prospects or an inflated, sclerotic housing market prevents them from growing up, the priorities that animate conservative principles are barely going to register on their radar.
And at that point, the GOP will have bigger problems than mere electoral politics.
— Liam Donovan is a former GOP staffer who works in government relations in Washington, D.C. A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium.