The Democratic Voter Generation Gap

As unpopular as he is, if the 2020 election were being held today it’s highly likely Trump would lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College map again. Pollsters say that Trump is as popular as ever with less educated white voters, and that is keeping a number of “battleground” states in his column. Biden does slightly better in many of those states than do Warren or Sanders, but probably not better enough.

The Democratic nomination race is still very fluid. The national polls have Biden, Sanders, and Warren bunched together at the top, with everyone else in low single digits. However, Pete Buttigieg is moving into double digits in some early primary states.

Right now, most of the campaigning is going on in the early primary states, which means the polls there aren’t just reflecting name recognition any more. Especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, and increasingly in South Carolina and Nevada, voters are putting together names and campaigns and moving closer to making choices. So it’s interesting to me that in Iowa, Biden has faded to 4th place after Buttifieg. Warren is in first place, but it’s tight. Biden is in third place after Sanders and Warren, respectively, in New Hampshire. Biden maintains a substantial lead in Nevada and South Carolina, although he may have slipped a bit in South Carolina.

The point, though, is that while Biden has a huge advantage in name recognition and, well, comfort level among many Democratic voters, it appears that voters are willing to change their minds when they get a closer look at the other candidates. I think any of the top three has a shot at the nomination, and I’m making no predictions. I also think it’s way too early to make judgments about who is most “electable” in the general; if nothing else, the impeachment process could well change the landscape considerably.

However, there’s one significant dynamic among Democratic voters that bears watching: The generation gap. James Downie writes at WaPo:

For his consistent polling strength, Biden should thank older voters. Among adults under 49, just 17 percent back Biden, compared with 22 percent for Warren and 28 percent for Sanders. Conversely, 37 percent of those 50 and older back Biden, with 20 percent for Warren and 10 percent for Sanders. The difference between old and young Democrats is bigger than the differences between male and female Democrats, white and nonwhite, moderate and liberal, or any other demographic breakdown. …

… If the Democratic primary were a national contest, Biden’s lead is strong enough — nearly 9 percent in polling averages — that this age gap would be mostly a curiosity. But unfortunately for Biden, his standing is far shakier in Iowa and New Hampshire, and since 1992 no Democrat has won the nomination without winning at least one of those two states. Why is Biden struggling there? Because the age gap is even wider. In a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of New Hampshire Democrats, Biden sits at 15 percent, trailing Sanders at 21 percent and Warren at 18 percent. The former vice president is supported by 22 percent of Democratic voters 50 and older, compared with just 8 percent of those under 50. And in the New York Times-Siena College Research Institute poll of Iowa, the explanation for Biden’s fourth-place showing at 17 percent starts and ends with the fact that, among likely caucus-goers under 45, he receives less than 3 percent support.

See also Vox, In Iowa, only 5 percent of Biden supporters are younger than 45.

Caucus states like Iowa aren’t necessarily a good barometer, because only the most committed — an activist — voters tend to participate. But as it says, Biden is polling at 8 percent among voters under 50 in New Hampshire. That says something.

But who else is supported by older voters? Donald Trump. Note that he’s got his own generation gap problem. As you can see in this interactive graphic at Politico, Trump does best with voters over age 65.  His support drops with each younger demographic. The 18-29 year olds would probably vote for a jar of mustard rather than Trump.

This suggests to me that the Democrats ought to be pulling out all the stops in a GOTV effort among the young folks. Would they turn out for Biden, however? Would enough of them turn out for anybody?

In the 2018 midterms, voter turnout among the 18 to 29 year olds went from 20 percent in 2015 to 36-38 percent (sources vary) in 2018. That’s nice, but of voters aged 65 and over, more than 65 percent of them voted. In 2016, 71 percent of the 65+ crowd voted, compared to 46 percent of 18 to 29 year olds. I have long thought that if the young folks thought the parties were listening to them they might be more responsive. The same old corporate dweebs in suits that Democrats like to nominate may not seem worth making the effort. But I’m 68 myself, so what do I know?

On the other hand, how much sense does it make for both Democrats and Republicans to chase the same demographic groups? One of the many factors impacting 2016 was that both Trump and Clinton found their strongest support among older voters. But the older voters overall preferred Trump. Younger voters more often voted for Clinton in the general, although they had preferred Sanders for the nomination. As usual, smaller percentages of them voted.

Republican columnist Jennifer Rubin, who is clearly hoping Democrats nominate somebody she can vote for, looks at poll numbers and calls Warren and Sanders too risky. Never Trump Republicans and right-leaning independents think Warren and Sanders are radical lefties, but those voters are comfortable with Biden. And why wouldn’t Democrats vote for Biden as easily as Warren? she asks.

Ask the young folks about that. I’m not sure they would.

One more item for consideration — This October 22 article at FiveThirtyEight asks early primary state Democratic voters who they don’t want to see nominated. In other words, which candidate would really make you squeamish as the Democratic standard bearer? Sanders won that contest, but Biden was a not-that-distant second. Warren seems poised to be a strong consensus candidate, but that could change. It could all change.

I still say it’s foolish to pick your primary candidate based on conventional wisdom about “electability,” but I do wish we could count on the younger people to vote.