The Progressive Youth Chimera
Once more, with feeling: "Demographics are not destiny."
Just how progressive are today’s youth (or “youts” as My Cousin Vinny would have it)? It’s fair to say that compared to older generations they generally lean more left on most issues, are more likely to say they’re “liberal” and more likely to support Democrats. But that’s a relative assessment; it doesn’t follow logically that the entire generation is therefore “progressive,” especially as the term has come to be understood by Democrats.
This potential problem has been thrown into relief by recent poll findings that the show the youth vote lagging considerably for Democrats when Biden is matched against Trump in 2024 trial heats. Some polls even show Biden polling behind Trump among voters under 30 (a group dominated by members of Gen Z). But on average Biden is still polling ahead of Trump among these voters—the problem is that the margin in his favor is much less than it was in 2020.
Data from the Split Ticket analytics site, based on an average of December cross-tabular data, show Biden carrying 18-29 year olds by 11 points, a 12-point pro-Trump shift relative to Catalist estimates from 2020. Similarly, pollster John Della Volpe collected a number of mostly December 18-29 year old crosstabs on his site. These crosstabs average out to a 6-point advantage for Biden among voters under 30, a 17 point shift toward Trump relative to 2020.
What gives? A variety of explanations have been advanced from mode effects (how the survey was conducted) to measurement error to disaffected young voters giving a “protest” response they don’t really mean. The flavor of these explanations is that the polls aren’t capturing the “true” sentiment among young voters, which is far more pro-Biden than they are capturing.
Well, maybe. But then again—maybe not! It’s at least possible that the steadfast progressivism of the younger generation has been overestimated and its moderation—or at least non-ideological nature—has been underestimated. That’s the view of Jonathan Chait in a recent article with which I concur:
For the past two decades, young people were widely assumed to have an ironclad loyalty to the Democratic Party. Democrats believed this, as did Republicans and journalists…The progressive movement made a giant bet on mobilizing young voters. That strategy, invested with buoyant hopes and vast sums of money, is now in ruins…
Liberal donors poured resources into an endless array of supposed grassroots organizations designed to turn out young, and especially nonwhite, voters. The theory was that these potential voters held left-wing views and would be roused to vote only if they could be convinced Democrats would take firm progressive positions. “Democrats desperately need a bold, progressive agenda and to build the kind of relationships in Florida that can’t be forged overnight,” argued one activist in 2019, echoing what activists were saying in other states.
Activists tended to import the language and concepts of the academic left into their work. “Young people have expressed that true engagement means investing in young people as leaders and amplifying work already being done in their communities, centering social justice and intersectionality, and meeting young people where they are,” wrote one.
Perhaps “centering social justice and intersectionality” is not really “meeting young people where they are!” Actually-existing young voters are in fact quite different from the young people that inhabit the fever dreams of progressive activists.
Consider these data from a recent survey conducted by the Blueprint public opinion research group. My analysis shows the following:
The overwhelming majority (65 percent) of 18-29 year old voters identify themselves as moderate-to-conservative. The level of self-declared liberalism is indeed higher than among other age groups but it not even close to the majority sentiment.
When given a list of political labels to choose from (they could select as many as they wished), just 22 percent said they identified with the label “progressive”. Again, the level is higher than among older age groups but hardly hegemonic. In fact, it’s barely higher than identifying with the label “Republican.”
On immigration, 49 percent of under 30 voters consider Biden more liberal than they are on the issue, compared to 29 percent who think he’s more conservative than they are. Similarly, 46 percent consider Biden more liberal on the border and 44 percent think he’s more liberal on asylum seekers than they are compared to 30 percent and 26 percent, respectively, who think he’s more conservative. More of these voters think the US should take in fewer, rather than more, refugees and asylum seekers and more think the US should be stricter rather than looser in granting refugee or asylum status. And more under 30 voters prefer an approach that would “increase border enforcement and make asylum and refugee policies stricter” to one that would “increase legal pathways to immigrate to the United States.” Consistent with these views, these voters say by 24 points that they support “a bipartisan deal that would pair immediate aid to Ukraine and Israel with border security funding and stricter asylum standards for entering into the United States.”
On transgender issues, 48 percent of these voters (remember these are basically Gen Z voters we’re talking about!) consider Biden more liberal than they are on these issues, compared to 28 percent who think he’s more conservative. And by 10 points, under 30 voters oppose the idea that transgender individuals should be allowed to play on sports teams that do not match their birth gender.
On crime, 40 percent of 18-29 year old voters think Biden is more liberal than they are on the issue, compared to 30 percent who think he’s more conservative. By 12 points, they think criminals are not punished harshly enough in the country rather than too harshly.
On oil and gas exploration, 45 percent believe Biden is more liberal than they are, while 30 percent think he’s more conservative. Even on climate change, 41 percent think Biden is more liberal, compared to 30 percent who say he’s more conservative. By 43 to 40 percent, under 30 voters say they support the US “increasing domestic fossil fuel production.” And when given a choice of three energy policy pathways, these Gen Z voters have surprisingly moderate views. Just 29 percent think the best energy policy is “we should end the use of fossil fuels and switch exclusively to renewable energy sources,” while 63 percent favor “we should use an all-of-the-above strategy that includes fossil fuels and renewable energy sources” (another 8 percent believe “we should rely mostly on fossil fuels to power our economy”).
The latter finding on energy pathways is consistent with much other recent data. In a 6,000 person survey by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life (SCAL) respondents were asked about their preferences for the country’s energy supply. By 64 percent to 36 percent, Millennial/Gen Z (18-44 year old) voters favored, “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources,” over “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only.” This again suggests the relative moderation, rather than strenuous progressivism, of younger voters on energy issues
Similarly, in a 3,000 voter survey conducted by YouGov for The Liberal Patriot, the following choices were offered to voters about energy strategy:
We need a rapid green transition to end the use of fossil fuels and replace them with fully renewable energy sources;
We need an “all-of-the above” strategy that provides abundant and cheap energy from multiple sources including oil and gas to renewables to advanced nuclear power; or
We need to stop the push to replace domestic oil and gas production with unproven green energy projects that raise costs and undercut jobs.
Among the same Millennial/Gen Z (18-44 year old) voters, the progressive-preferred first position, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables, is a distinctly minoritarian one, embraced by just 36 percent of these voters. The most popular position is the second, all-of-the above approach that emphasizes energy abundance and the use of fossil fuels and renewables and nuclear, favored by 48 percent of Millennial/Gen Z voters. Another 16 percent flat-out support production of fossil fuels and oppose green energy projects. Together that’s 64 percent of these voters who do not endorse the standard progressive position on the energy transition.
None of this is to deny that younger age groups/generations are not more left on most issues than older age groups/generations. But there is a difference between being more progressive and progressive as a blanket characterization. As these data clearly show, that characterization is not accurate and helps us understand how these voters seem to be more in play than most Democrats, especially their well-funded activist contingent, expected.
The lesson here: Demographics are not destiny. This cannot be repeated enough. The demographics are 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. 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. We may be seeing that right now.
In short, there’s no free (demographic) lunch. The boring, tedious, difficult task of persuasion is still the key to building electoral majorities. So maybe instead of blowing off these polls that show poor support for Democrats among young voters, they should take them seriously and get to work.