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Five Reasons to be Skeptical of the Youth Vote
It’s Not Likely to be a Panacea for the Democrats
Nothing makes the Democratic heart beat faster than a sense that the demographic wind is at their back. They love the idea that they can safely disregard all that messy persuasion stuff to focus on rising demographics and mobilize, mobilize, mobilize.
The current demographic darling is the youth vote, which did indeed perform well for the Democrats in 2022. But much commentary has gone beyond that simple, true observation to portray the youth vote as a tsunami about to overwhelm the Republican Party. To understand why that’s an over-reading of the evidence and what a more balanced perspective on the youth vote should be, here are five things to keep in mind.
1. Age and generation are two different things. Sometimes when commentators speak of the youth vote they seem to be speaking of an age group, typically 18-29. And sometimes they are speaking in generational terms, which are defined by birth years. This now typically includes both the Millennial generation (born 1981-1996) and Gen Z (born 1997-2012). So these “young” voters were 18-41 in 2022.
Since generational ages are not stable, this can lead to confusion. For example, in the Catalist data, the Millennial/Gen Z share of voters went up from 23 to 26 percent of voters between 2018 and 2022, while the vote share of 18-29 year olds went down from 12 to 10 percent and the 30-44 year old share went down from 21 to 20 percent. Huh? But this is easily explained by the simple fact that Millennials/Gen Z in 2018 covered voters ages 18-37, while in 2022 these generations covered ages 18-41. More ages covered = more voters so there’s no need to posit any particularly good turnout performance by these generations.
2. Turnout by age goes up and that affects generations a lot. This is another factor that leads to confusion. As generations age, their turnout (defined as percent of eligible voters that cast a ballot) goes up for many years simply because older voters vote at a much higher rate than younger voters. In fact, the age-turnout gradient is particularly sharp among voters in their twenties and thirties, which of course complicates interpretations of turnout performance among Millennials and Gen Z. This makes it harder—or should make it harder—to ascribe any turnout magic to these generations.
3. Presidential elections are different from congressional elections. In 2022, young (18-29) voters defied the prevailing winds and Democrats improved their margin among these voters by 5 points relative to 2020. But congressional elections and presidential elections can be quite different, not least because a different, larger group of voters shows up for presidential elections. That affects the attitudinal complexion of all demographic groups, especially a volatile group like young voters.
Consider that Democrats carried the two party vote among 18-29 year olds by 36 points in 2018 only to have that margin decline by 12 points in 2020. And that was with Trump on the ballot. Right now, polls tend to show Democratic weakness among young voters moving into the 2024 cycle. In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, Biden leads Trump by only 11 points among the 18-39 year old age group (which incidentally covers almost all of Millennials and Gen Z). And in the latest Quinnipiac poll, where Biden leads Trump overall, his lead among 18-34 year olds is a mere 5 points.
4. If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This saying, attributed to the economist Herbert Stein, is apt. Democrats seem to expect all future generations to exhibit the same Democratic proclivities as the Millennials and Gen Z have. In fact, only about half of Gen Z was even of voting age in 2022 so we really don’t know how the other half will shape up. And succeeding generations—generations post-Z and post-post-Z—who knows? One political carbon copy of the Millennials after another cannot go on forever and, yes, it will stop.
The same can be said about the currently-existing Democratic proclivities of Millennials/Gen Z. They will be susceptible to decay, even if these generations retain a baseline lean toward the Democrats That’s exactly what Nate Cohn showed in a recent piece on generational cohorts. Millennial/Gen Z Democratic support cannot remain at the current high levels forever; it will stop.
5. Demographics are not destiny. This point cannot be repeated enough. The demographics is destiny thesis seems to attract Democrats like moths to a flame. We saw it in the bowdlerization of (ahem) The Emerging Democratic Majority argument and we’re seeing it today in the enshrinement of generational change as the engine of certain Democratic dominance. Rising pro-Democratic generations = larger share of voters over time = Democratic dominance.
We’ve been here before with the rise of nonwhite voters. Here’s how the argument is being repurposed: if voter groups favorable to the Democrats (racial minorities, now younger generations) are growing while unfavorable groups (whites, now older generations) are declining, that’s good news for the Democrats. This is called a “mix effect”: a change in electoral margins attributable to the changing mix of voters.
These mix effects are what people typically have in mind when they think of the pro-Democratic effects of rising diversity (now generational succession). But mix effects, by definition, assume no shifts in voter preference: they are an all-else-equal concept. If voter preferences remain the same, then mix effects mean that the Democrats will come out ahead. That is a mathematical fact.
But voter preferences do not generally remain the same (see #4). We have seen this in the case of rising nonwhite voter share, as white working-class voters moved toward the Republicans and, more recently, nonwhite voters themselves have become more Republican. This has cancelled out much of the presumed benefit for the Democrats from the changing racial mix of voters.
To summarize how this applies to generations: while the mix effects of generational succession may indeed favor the Democrats, these effects are fairly modest in any given election and can easily be overwhelmed by shifts in voter preference against the Democrats among older generations. In addition, even among pro-Democratic generations (e.g., Millennials and Gen Z), the electoral benefit to the Democrats from their growth can be completely neutralized by shifts against the Democrats within these generations.
In short, there’s no free (demographic) lunch. The boring, tedious, difficult task of persuasion is still the key to building electoral majorities.