Millennials and Gen Z are only a few years away from dominating the electorate.
By Ronald Brownstein OCTOBER 23, 2020
The coming generational backlash against Donald Trump may represent only the first tremor in a much larger earthquake threatening the GOP through the 2020s.
Trump is eroding the Republican Party’s position with younger voters at precisely the same time as the massively diverse Millennials and Generation Z are poised to become the largest voting bloc in the electorate, as new research released this week shows.
That prospect presents both a near- and long-term danger for the GOP. The immediate problem is that polls nationally and in key swing states show Joe Biden positioned to significantly expand on Hillary Clinton’s margin among younger voters, even as many more of them are signaling they intend to vote than did in 2016.
“There’s a consistent picture coming together that says we’re going to have the highest youth turnout since 2008, and maybe since 1992,” Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, a group working to mobilize younger voters for Democrats, told me. “And they are rebuking Trump and the Republicans in a way we haven’t seen since the 2008 presidential race''.
If anything, the longer-term trends may be more ominous. The electorate is beginning its most profound generational transition since the early 1980s, when Baby Boomers became the largest voting bloc, dislodging the Greatest Generation of Americans, who came of age during the Depression and World War II.
In 2020, for the first time, Millennials and Gen Z (which comprise young adults born in 1981 or later) will equal Baby Boomers and prior generations (older adults born in 1964 or earlier) as a share of all Americans eligible to vote, according to a new study from the nonpartisan States of Change project. Because older voters typically turn out at higher rates than younger ones, the study forecasts that those earlier generations will still cast more ballots next month, by a margin of 43 percent to 32 percent. But in 2024, the two younger generations are expected to equal the older ones as a share of actual voters on Election Day. And by 2028, Millennials and Gen Z will dwarf the older generations as a share of both eligible and actual voters. That will be true not only nationally, but in all the crucial battleground states, according to previously unreleased projections provided to me by States of Change.
Given that the younger generations align much more closely with Democratic ideological views on almost all policy questions, this shift underscores the stakes in the generational roulette Trump has played by defining the GOP so narrowly around the priorities and preferences of his core groups: older, nonurban, non-college-educated, and evangelical white people. If Democrats can not only express the values of younger Americans, but also advance their material interests, they will have a substantial advantage in building electoral majorities through the decade ahead, says Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic election analyst and co-founder of the States of Change project, which is a joint research collaboration between three liberal-leaning groups and the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center.
“The key issue is: What do they do in terms of political economy? What do they do in terms of enabling Millennials and Gen Z to make their way in life [on] the overall bread-and-butter stuff of housing, health care, economic mobility?” he told me. “You can lock these people in. This is literally the future of American politics.”
The hinge group in this approaching confrontation between what I’ve called “the brown and the gray”—the diverse Americans born after 1981 and the mostly white ones born before 1964—is Generation X, born in the middle. States of Change forecasts that Gen X will comprise about one-fourth of voters in the coming years, with its numbers slightly shrinking over time. It represents a kind of midpoint between the larger generations that bracket it: More racially diverse than the older, but less than the younger, it broke narrowly for Clinton in 2016; in current public polling, it appears ready to give Biden at least a somewhat larger advantage this year.
Most of the generational discussion in the 2020 election has focused on Biden’s potential to run better among seniors than any other Democratic presidential nominee since Al Gore in 2000. And that indeed has enormous implications for his ability to claw back votes in Trump states with large older populations, particularly Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But many analysts believe that the Democratic resurgence among preponderantly white seniors is a temporary phenomenon rooted in voters’ comfort with the 77-year-old Biden and their discontent over Trump’s chaotic handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The shift among younger generations could have a much more enduring impact on the country.
Before Millennials entered the electorate in large numbers in the 2004 election, adults younger than 30 had generally tracked voting preferences of the country overall, without providing any particular advantage to Democrats; Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988, for instance, won them comfortably, according to exit polls.
But in the years since, the Democratic advantage among younger adults has swelled. In 2004, John Kerry won 54 percent of them. Barack Obama won 66 percent of them, compared with John McCain’s 32 percent in 2008, before topping Mitt Romney in 2012 by a narrower margin: 60 percent to 37 percent.
In 2016, Trump didn’t improve on Romney’s performance—he won only 36 percent of adults younger than 30—but Clinton substantially retreated from Obama’s. She carried only 55 percent of younger adults, with about one in 11 opting for third-party candidates. Clinton posted big advantages among nonwhite younger adults, but Trump narrowly carried white Millennials, boosted by a surge among those without a college degree, the same group whose older members flocked to him most enthusiastically in the election.
Biden’s appeal to young people has been lackluster from the start. Among that cohort, Bernie Sanders routed him during the Democratic primary, and polls consistently show that his favorability ratings remain subpar: The annual American Values Survey, released earlier this week by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, found that Biden’s rating was net negative among young adults ages 18 to 29 and only even among those ages 30 to 49. (The oldest Millennials are now 39.) Democratic strategists express particular concern that both turnout and the party’s margins may slip next month among younger Black and Latino men, some of whom are drawn to Trump and others disillusioned that either party can produce positive change in their lives.
But despite all that, Democrats are optimistic that Biden can rebuild his vote share with younger adults—at least up to Obama’s 60 percent showing in 2012, and maybe even his towering 66 percent in 2008. Public polls—such as recent Marist Institute, Harvard University Institute of Politics, and Pew Research Center national surveys—generally show Biden at about 60 percent. But Wessel said that, given antipathy toward Trump, the higher number is within Biden’s reach. He notes that two-thirds of younger adults supported Democrats in House races during the 2018 midterms. “We see even people who self-identify as young Republicans disagree with Trump on almost every issue,” Wessel told me. “The number of votes that Joe Biden will net from young people more than Hillary Clinton did—it could be five million votes across the country.”
Terrance Woodbury, a Millennial Democratic consultant, recently told me that the attitudes expressed by younger generations on most policy issues mean Democrats should aspire to win three-fourths of their vote. One reason for that ambitious goal: Gen Z, like a youthful cavalry, will start entering the electorate in large numbers this year, and will reinforce the change that Millennials began. These young Americans, born from 1997 to 2012, are even more racially diverse than Millennials. Forty-nine percent of Gen Z are people of color, versus 45 percent of Millennials, according to a recent analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, another principal in the States of Change project. By contrast, more than 70 percent of Baby Boomers are white. (The younger, still-unnamed generation of Americans born beginning in 2013 is even more racially diverse—51 percent of them are nonwhite—but they won’t begin entering the electorate until 2031.)
States of Change anticipates that Millennials will actually plateau at about one-fourth of both eligible and actual voters between now and 2036. The biggest change to the electorate will be the explosive growth of Gen Z, which will increase from a projected 8 percent of actual voters this year to 29 percent in 2036. That year, the two generations combined will comprise a clear 55 percent majority of all voters. As soon as 2028, States of Change expects them to outvote the Boomers and even older generations by a double-digit margin.
Strikingly, this transition will be as powerful in the older, mostly white states of the Rust Belt as it will be in the younger, more diverse, and rapidly growing Sun Belt states. According to the previously unpublished States of Change projections, by 2028, the giant younger generations will comprise at least 40 percent of actual voters not only in Colorado, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, but also in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, and Iowa.
That’s a worrisome trend for Republicans. In another study by Pew, analysts concluded that “similar to Millennials, Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations.” All of that clangs against the agenda Trump has stamped on the GOP, of open resistance to racial and cultural change.
But while this generational transition presents obvious opportunities for Democrats, it also creates complications. Because Democrats are winning most young people, the disruption will rumble through their party first: States of Change projects that Millennials and Gen Z will provide nearly half of all Democratic votes by as soon as 2028.
That could be a formula for tension between younger generations sympathetic to vanguard progressive proposals and politicians and a party leadership that remain much more centrist, and for that matter, much older. “I think it’s inexorable that’s where the voters are moving; it’s up to the party leaders to decide if that’s where the Democratic Party is going to follow,” Wessel told me. “It doesn’t have to be a fight. It can be collective power-building, or it can be intransigence. It’s very clear to me where the Democratic base is going.”
That choice might not be as straightforward as Wessel and other young progressive activists hope. Even as Democrats benefit from the entry into the electorate of more left-leaning young people, the party is simultaneously increasing its vote among college-educated suburbanites, many of them middle-aged or older. Although those voters are also socially liberal—and repelled by Trump—they could provide a counterweight to younger progressives, because they are generally more cautious about expanding government’s role in the economy.
Still, the generational challenge facing Republicans seems much more acute. The American Values Survey showed that big majorities of adults ages 18 to 49 expressed views antithetical to the dominant GOP positions on racial equity, immigration, economic inequality, abortion, building a border wall, and the value of a society that is both racially and religiously diverse.
In all these ways, Trump’s belligerent politics has created an opportunity for Democrats to cement a lasting generational advantage not seen perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt built his sturdy New Deal coalition during the Depression. But the American Values Survey also contains a clear warning: Fully three-fifths of adults younger than 30 and half of those ages 30 to 49 describe their financial situation as precarious. As Teixeira noted to me, identifying with the cultural values of younger Americans will only take Democrats so far if they can’t also advance their economic interests.
If Democrats win the White House in November and can put Millennials and Gen Z on a better financial trajectory, “they will have an incredible opportunity” to solidify a durable majority electoral coalition, Teixeira said. “But if you [mess] it up, you open so many doors for the Republicans to come back and loosen your hold on these generations.”