Does ideology shape life experience, or does life experience determine ideology? The future direction of American politics depends on our response.
In response to the disappointing results of November’s elections, I have argued that conservatives should take heart from the undeniable aging of the electorate, which will tilt future contests toward Republicans. 2012 exit polls showed Mitt Romney sweeping voters 65 and older in a 12-point landslide, and among all those above age 30 (81 percent of the voting public) the Republican nominee prevailed by a solid margin. President Obama won the overall vote solely on the strength of his crushing 60-to-36 advantage with the 18-to-30 crowd. If official projections prove accurate, low birthrates and rising life expectancy will produce a much higher percentage of elderly Americans in the electorate, conferring a significant edge for conservative candidates in future close elections.
But Democrats hope that young Obama enthusiasts will maintain their overwhelmingly liberal orientation even as they grow older and their life circumstances change. In a provocative piece for New York magazine that calls conservatives “doomed,” Jonathan Chait argues that the president’s support from young voters in the last two election cycles went “beyond the usual reasons—social issues like gay marriage and feminism, immigration policy or Obama’s personal appeal—and suggest a deeper attachment to liberalism. The proclivities of younger voters may actually portend a full-scale sea change in American politics.” He goes on to cite a Pew survey suggesting that “Americans form a voting pattern early in their life and tend to hold to it.”
That conclusion, however, contradicts the evidence of 40 years of exit polls. In 11 presidential elections since 1972, voters over 65 have voted more Republican than voters under 30 in every contest but one (1988, for some reason). In none of the 11 elections did young voters tilt more Republican than the overall electorate; their levels of support for Democratic candidates in each campaign topped those of the general electorate by an average of five points.
These figures conclusively rebut the progressive hope that youthful liberals generally maintain their fervent commitment to liberalism as they age and mature. The voters who lean Republican in middle age and beyond are the same people, after all, who leaned Democratic in their younger years. For all their diabolical cleverness, Karl Rove and other cunning conservatives haven’t yet developed a scheme for creating new voters in a lab who emerge pre-aged to a seasoned 65 with an unstoppable instinct to vote for members of the Bush family.
My own experience could serve to illustrate the point.
I cast my first presidential ballot in 1972 for the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. (I also worked professionally in the McGovern campaign, but that’s another story entirely.) At the time, I joined my fellow baby boomers, then 18-29, in giving McGovern 46 percent of our support—vastly better than the truly pathetic 38 percent he received from the overall electorate on his way to crushing defeat in a 49-state landslide.
Twelve years later, my cohort had moved on, and so had I. The youngest of the old group had now reached age 30 and the oldest of us were well into their 40s. Like 58 percent of all voters between ages 30 and 49 in 1984, I proudly cast my vote for Ronald Reagan (I had also supported him in 1980.) This time, the boomers who had given McGovern an eight-point advantage compared to his showing in the broader electorate gave Democrat Walter Mondale only one point more, 42 percent, than his percentage of the nationwide popular vote. In other words, as we moved toward middle age, the progressive tilt that had characterized our youth had all but disappeared.
Of course it’s too early to determine with any certainty whether the same maturing process will work its magic on youthful Obama cadres from 2008 and 2012, but there is some indication that the shift has already begun. As the hope-and-change candidate of four years ago, Obama swept voters between 18 and 29 by a truly stunning margin of 34 points, 66 to 32 percent. Four years later, a significant portion of those true believers had moved into the 30- to 45-year-old segment of the population, a group that chose Obama with a much more modest majority of 52 percent. It was exactly the same percentage, by the way, that he received from the same age group four years before.
Chait suggests that the progressive inclinations of this year’s under-30s will remain steady and unshakable as the years pass, citing polling data showing 33 percent of young voters calling themselves liberal in 2012, compared to 25 percent of the larger electorate. But that’s a reflection of their circumstances as much as their ideological commitment. People under 30 are disproportionately single, religiously uncommitted, and earning incomes below the national median. Such voters combined to deliver Obama’s margin of victory.
Among the unmarried, who make up 41 percent of the electorate, Obama won by a margin of 24 percent. Among the 17 percent who say they “never” attend religious services, he won by 28 percent. And with those earning less than $50,000 a year, who comprise 41 percent of the voting public, he enjoyed a 22-percent edge.
The most salient point about all these characteristics is that, like youth itself, they count as temporary: the statistics show that few of those who are single, irreligious, and economically challenged before age 30 will stay that way as they progress through middle age and beyond. And it’s no accident that Romney won big majorities of those groups—the married, the religiously engaged, and the economically prosperous—associated so clearly with the middle aged and the middle class.
Chait expresses admiration for the 59 percent of young voters who agreed with the statement that “government should do more to solve problems” and assumes that this opinion stems from thoughtful analysis of the issues of the day. But it’s at least as plausible that the youthful preference for activist government stems from the relatively small number of those between 18 and 29 who’ve ever been asked to pay for such initiatives. IRS figures indicate that they are vastly under-represented among the bare majority of Americans who pay personal income taxes, and even more under-represented among those who pay at the highest rates. It’s also safe to assume that under-30s include a substantial number who benefit directly from subsidized student loans, either as current students or as recent graduates struggling with debt.
None of this means their liberal leanings are inappropriate or unworthy, but they are often fleeting, polling data suggest. And for those who suggest that the modern university provides such a thorough brainwashing that college graduates will never escape its influence, it might be worth considering that Romney, not Obama, won a majority of the 29 percent of voters with undergraduate degrees. The great majority of those students attended university since the 1970s, well after the loony left had captured control of the Ivory Tower. After all, it was 1986 when Jesse Jackson led 500 Stanford students in the memorable chant “Hey hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
Not even the most incurably optimistic conservative could expect that all youthful leftists would make the liberating journey from darkness to light, from callow adolescence to responsible maturity, and join the enlightened armies of the right. But even a relatively small portion—say, 10 percent—managing to follow that well-worn path would push most elections in a Republican direction in a future nation where the percentage of the young remains steady or slightly shrinks, and the numbers of the old vastly and consequentially expand.
This column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.