Pundits have long been predicting that the presidential election will be much closer and much meaner in 2012 than it was in 2008. Closer it now is.According to the RCP Poll Average, the race is now a virtual tie: Incumbent Obama now leads by a mere 1.8 percent over Romney, whereas challenger Obama led McCain by 7.6 percent exactly four years ago. It will certainly revolve around a very different array of issues—much less argument about the war on terror and GOP performance, and a lot more about the stagnating economy and Democratic performance.
In one respect, however, the next election will be a replay of the last: There will be a historically large divide in the preferences of younger voters (under 30) versus older voters (65+). In 2008, this divide (21 percentage points) was wider than in any election since the advent of age-bracketed voting data in the 1960s. The second-biggest divide (16 percentage points) was back in 1972, when nearly half of all young voters voted for McGovern while older voters went overwhelmingly for Nixon.
I’ve been tracking generational leanings in the polls pretty carefully. The Pew Research Center has issued several reports (most notably, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election) exploring this divide, and Time followed up with its own cover story (“The New Generation Gap”). More recently, Mike and Morley, Forbes, The New York Times, and many others have also weighed in.
Bottom line: Every generation is today a bit more favorable toward Obama than they were in 2010 and a good deal less favorable than in 2008. The partisan gap between the Democrat-leaning young and the Republican-leaning old, however, remains as strong as ever—at around 20 percent.
Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats. This fall, the media focus may shift. The big story could be how and why today’s angry, aging Silent Generation put the Republicans over the top. The relevant parallel here is 1972, when Nixon was able to split the young Boomer vote with McGovern—and then crush McGovern with all voters over age 30. (Nixon’s popular margin in 1972, 23.2 percent of the electorate, is the fourth largest in U.S. history.) Romney, of course, cannot hope for Nixon’s margin. But the basic logic still stands. Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote; he just has to contain youth losses enough so that his huge advantage among older voters puts him ahead.
The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, each with a different collective life story shaped by its own location in history. Let’s take a look at how each of these stories is likely to determine the outcome. (Throughout, I will borrow shamelessly from Pew’s wonderful cohort-tracking research and graphics.)
Because this piece turned out to be pretty long, I’m going to break it into two posts. This post will look at the generations themselves. The next will look beyond generations to the election outcome.
At the very elder edge of the electorate is the G.I. GENERATION, born between 1901-24. (Sample leaders: John Kennedy, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr.) With its youngest members now age 87 and older, the G.I.s today comprise just 2 percent of likely voters. Except during the late 1960s and 1970s, this “greatest generation” has always heavily favored the Democrats, having come of age as huge supporters of the “big government” presidency of FDR. Indeed, in every election from 1994 to 2004, the peers of Jimmy Stewart were more likely than younger Americans to vote Democratic. [See the “Roosevelt” chart on this page from the Pew study.] Even in 2008, according to Gallup, Obama ran almost even with McCain among these overwhelmingly white 80+ voters—better than he did with any other age bracket over 40. Apparently, generation trumps age when it comes to racial bias. Prediction for G.I.s in 2012: slight edge (3 percent) to the Democrats.
Now let’s turn to the “young old.” Dominating the ranks of retirees is the SILENT GENERATION (born 1925-42, today age 69 to 86), comprising 13 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Robert & Ted Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, John McCain.) Coming of age during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies, when Americans generally were voting Republican, the young, conformist Silent leaned more Republican than the rest. While the Silent produced nearly all of the most famous civil-rights leaders and “good government” reformers of the post-war era, they have never favored a strong executive (no Silent has ever been elected President) and have tended to return to their GOP roots as they have grown older. In seven of the last nine elections, they have voted more heavily than other Americans for Republicans. [See the “Truman” and “Eisenhower” charts on this page.]
Since 2008, the Silent’s pro-GOP tendency has widened considerably, along with their unhappiness with the direction of the country. Polls show the Silent are upset not just because they are “angry” at government (they are twice as likely as Millennials to say this), but also because they are “uncomfortable” with positions they associate with younger Obama Democrats on issues such as immigration, marriage, homosexuality, religion, and the Internet. The Silent are the least-immigrant generation (per capita) in American history, and they grew up at a time when the rules of life were clear and simple. Today they are disoriented by the bewildering diversity of today’s younger generations, and they can’t figure out what the new rules are.
Most Silent recognize that are doing well economically compared to younger Americans. But they worry that America is losing its sense of exceptional “greatness” and gaining an addiction to endless public debt—faults they attribute more to Democrats than to Republicans. Many fear the nation is headed back toward the Hard Times they witnessed in their childhood. According to recent Gallup surveys, the Silent favor Romney by 14 percentage points. Prediction for the Silent in 2012: large margin (15 percent) to the Republicans.
Occupying midlife and already surging past age 65 is the BOOM GENERATION (born 1943-60, today age 51 to 68), today comprising 31 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Bill & Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Condoleeza Rice.) Boomers came of age during the social and cultural upheavals that rocked America during the late ‘60s and ‘70s—giving them a fixation on vision and values that defines them even to this day as a generation of individualists and culture warriors (left versus right, “blue” versus “red”). As they grow older, Boomers increasingly call themselves “conservative,” but not necessarily Republican.
First-wave Boomers (today in their 60s) have more years of education than younger Boomers, have done better economically, vote more reliably, gravitate to humanist or mainstream churches, and vote more for Democrats. Last-wave Boomers (today in their 50s) experienced a rapid fall in SAT scores and college attendance, lag far behind first-wavers economically, vote less often, veer toward atheism or “born-again” evangelicalism, and vote more for Republicans. In recent elections, first-wave Boomers have tilted to the Democrats; their younger brothers and sisters have favored the GOP. [See the “Kennedy/Johnson,” “Nixon,” and “Ford/Carter” charts on this page.] In recent months, Gallup shows Boomers favoring Romney by about 5 percentage points. Prediction for the Boomers in 2012: medium edge (5 percent) to the Republicans, with red-leaning last-wavers slightly overpowering blue-leaning first-wavers.
Today’s emerging leaders and the parents of most school-age kids belong to GENERATION X (born 1961-81, today age 30 to 50). Gen Xers now comprise 35 percent of likely voters, a slightly larger share than Boomers. Gen X’s share should be much larger, but their tendency to vote less often than older generations dilutes the impact of their raw numbers. (Sample leaders: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal.) The left-alone children of the Consciousness Revolution who later came of age during an era that stressed free agency, personal ownership, and survivalism, Gen Xers have mixed feelings about the two parties. Xers like the social and cultural liberalism of Democrats (whatever “works for me” is perfect), but they also like the economic conservatism of the GOP (hey, don’t even think about picking my pocket!).
Like Boomers, they show a strong political trend from oldest to youngest, but it’s in the opposite direction. First-wave Xers, born in the early 1960s, first voted during the early Reagan years and have thereafter leaned heavily to the GOP. (Just over 70 percent of today’s state governors and members of Congress born from 1961 to 1965 are Republican—the biggest partisan tilt of any five-year cohort group.) Late-wave Xers came of age with Clinton and now lean more toward the Democratic Party. [See the “Reagan/Bush” and “Clinton” charts on this page.] According to recent Gallup polls, Generation X favors Obama by 1 percentage point. Prediction for Gen Xers in 2012: dead even, with GOP-leaning first-wavers exactly neutralizing Democratic-leaning last-wavers.
Finally comes the youngest generation of voters, the adult members of the MILLENNIAL GENERATION (born 1982-93, today age 18 to 29), comprising 18 percent of likely voters. (As yet, they have no national political leaders.) Twenty years ago, they were the special and fussed-over “Friends of Barney.” Today, they’re telling older Americans to share their toys and put a smile on their face. For Millennials, the team comes first: They are more likely than older voters to favor strong communities, urge consensus solutions, trust “big government,” and shrug at paranoia over privacy. With their trademark confidence, Millennials embrace many of the social trends (related to race, ethnicity, religion, homosexuality, and the Internet) that older voters find threatening. Millennials are the least likely to believe such trends undermine patriotism or family cohesion. They are the most likely to be optimistic about America’s long-term future.
This outlook puts Millennials decisively in the Democratic camp, with roughly two-thirds of them (66 to 32 percent) voting for Obama over McCain in 2008 and (according to Gallup) a smaller yet still impressive margin of three-fifths of them favoring Obama over Romney today. [See the “Bush/Obama” chart on this page.] The big question is whether the waning enthusiasm Millennials now show in re-electing Obama—combined with the extra fervor Silent and Boomers show in defeating him—will allow the GOP to prevail. Nonwhite Millennials are as overwhelmingly pro-Obama in 2012 as they were in 2008 (roughly a 60 percentage point margin). Yet Democrats should worry about the recent Pew finding that, among white Millennials, the 10 percentage point margin for Obama in 2008 has been fading away and nearly disappearing over the past year. If young whites split anywhere close to 50-50 in 2012 (remember, non-Latino whites still comprise 60 percent of this generation), then it hardly matters what young minorities do: The GOP will possess an almost insuperable advantage. Prediction for Millennials in 2012: very large margin (20 percent) to the Democrats, led by a 4-to-1 advantage among young minorities.
It’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future. In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, they are still outnumbered by two larger generations of voters (Gen X and Boom), and they may well be outworked by a more energized generation of seniors (the Silent). The young can sometimes lose elections, and lose them badly. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.
Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008. As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young “peacenik” Democrats who once voted for McGovern. That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.
If you do all the arithmetic with the voter shares and margin predictions cited above, you will find that my overall prediction is for a dead-even tie between Obama and Romney. Meaning: The 2012 winner is going to have to put together a generational scorecard that is, in some combination, better than the figures I have revealed.
How likely is it that Obama or Romney will put together that scorecard? I look at that in the next post.