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.

9 thoughts on “The Democratic Voter Generation Gap

  1. It's painful to picture two elderly men prone to word salads facing off for the presidency. Could anyone, besides Trump's Yahoo army, take it seriously?

    The few young people (20's and 30's) I know are concerned about climate change and social fairness, but put little faith in the government's ability to influence either. PR-driven politics since the 1980's have had a real effect.

    Democrats would do well to consider tripping over each other's health care plan details less and pointing out the main features of Trump's total unfitness more. Waiting until the general might be missing a big opportunity.

  2. Joe Biden voted FOR the invasion of Iraq; therefore, I will not – ever – vote for Joe Biden. 

    I will campaign for Bernie, and I'd vote for Liz, but otherwise I'll probably vote Green (I live in a safe Blue State). 

    And I'll be 65 when I vote in 2020.

  3. In 2016 we had two candidates with the highest unfavorability ratings ever. And in 2020, we could have two babbling old white men, one of whom is a straight up crook, both with questionable grasps on their faculties, and both beholden, to varying degrees, to wealthy interests. 

    And this after electing the first African American president, a man who was very smart, capable and reflective of the values of most Americans admire.  How did we get from there to here, and is what we've seen since the correction?

    It really says something, and it’s not good, about our political system and our culture that with all the talented people we have in our nation this is the best we can do.  It makes no sense at all that we are fine with spending literally trillions of dollars on health care, that’s siphoned off for profit while even people with insurance have to run bake sales and fundraisers to cover the cost of catastrophic illnesses to try to stave off bankruptcy, while those without are just left to die.  And millions of us are fighting to keep it that way.  We are the only country in the world that does this; something is seriously wrong; Trump is not THE cause but a symptom of it.

    Meanwhile, America has degenerated into a violent, hate-filled nightmare for many of us:

    My wife and I were comfortable taking road trips to all parts of the country.  I’m scared now.

    Its become a cliché now to say "this is the most important election" in our lifetime, so I won't say it.  But clearly, the political mess we find ourselves in is symptomatic of deeper, systemic ills in our society.  Defeating Trump in 2020 is a start, but I’m afraid its just scratching the surface.


  4. It really says something, and it’s not good, about our political system and our culture that with all the talented people we have in our nation this is the best we can do.

    It’s redolent of the last days of the Soviet Union, when their system put up one old fossil after another, as leaders. This is but one sign of a failing system. Another is the inability to self-clean obvious corruption, the likelihood that 1) Trump will be acquitted by the Senate, and 2) get re-elected despite losing the popular vote.

  5. Here is a way to understand the age gap in Democratic voters.  Each taxpaying citizen owes $186,500 in national debt.  The young people know that one way or another they inherit this debt.  They also know they are not likely to die their way out of it very soon unlike the Biden supporters.  The same was true last election.   Hillary voters tended to a geriatric mode, while Bernie voters had zeal, youth, and enthusiasm.  

    Right now we are borrowing money to prop up a government run by a partially demented geriatric who has no idea of how to work or how the country works.  Most of this money is going to other geriatrics who already have more money than sense.  This is no way to invest in a future.  This is a way to assure the young people they will have little chance of a future much less a hope of a golden year or two.  

    I write this, of course, as a jaded geriatric myself, who will not march with the rank and file geriatrics.  Hell why should I, most of the good ones are already dead.  .  

  6. Voting Green  in three states is what installed the Trump regime.  Jill Stein was is a Russian asset. Don't vote stupid. My son served two years in iraq. Thankfully he survived  but I would vote Biden  if that is the choice. Yes with 330 million people you would think we could find bettet, but her we are: every single day 10 new valid reasons to impeach and remove and millions do not see the danger of accepting  criminal unethical immoral and incompetent  as qualifications for highest office.

    • Pretty sure more "Democrats" voted for Trump that Stein in all three of those states.  Jill Stein was and is NOT a Russian "asset" ("paid agent taking orders") except in a watered-down version of the term ("anybody whose actions sometimes advance the interests of…"), which applies to Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, me, doug, probably everybody who participates here at Mahablog and Dick Cheney (the person most responsible for hastening the end of the US Republic). 

      I don't "vote stupid", but we inherited a stupid, archaic voting process (First-Past-The-Post, plurality wins) from Britain, which makes "smart" voting really complicated (a persons best vote depends on how they think others will vote).   There are lots of Greens who are really just pissed-off ex-Democrats, angry that the Dem Party doesn't live up to their ideals.  That's not me, but I get it.  I do what I can to get the Green Party to focus on local elections – so we can someday run qualified candidates for higher office – and to push for changes to our electoral system (Ranked Choice Voting, like Maine) to make voting less painful. 

      Like Ralph Nader in 2000, Jill Stein deserves SOME blame for the GOP win, but IMO, there were much bigger factors: GOP cheating (gerrymanders, voter suppression, manipulation of paperless computer votes) and Democratic incompetence (abandoning Unions & working-class voters, not campaigning in the Midwest, etc).

      Very glad your son survived the US Occupation of Iraq!

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