Young Americans are Fleeing the GOP. Will Democrats Screw This Up?

Run away! It's the party of Lincoln!

Run away! It’s the party of Lincoln!

I recently pointed out that Democrats tend to think progress either occurs incrementally or through dramatic change.

These distinct theories of change can help us understand why certain voters support a given candidate. Age, I reasoned, was the best indicator of how individuals understood societal progress. Generally speaking, the dramatic-change camp is occupied by younger voters, while incrementalist tendencies are exhibited by older individuals (yes, I realize there are older individuals who support Bernie Sanders and younger people who love Hillary Clinton).

While I still remain hopeful that Democrats will be demographically forced to abandon incrementalism, I’m becoming more skeptical — especially after I saw findings from a new survey of American adults which shows that Republicans have lost significant ground with young voters in the last year alone (emphasis mine):

Sixty-one percent of 18-to-29 year-olds prefer that a Democrat be elected president in the fall, while 33 percent of those surveyed back a Republican. That gap of 28 percentage points has nearly doubled since a similar poll conducted last year 

In pursuit of votes from their xenophobic and misogynistic base, Republicans have been forced into an awful short-term electoral strategy. By doing so, the GOP has abandoned young voters, which not only happens to be myopic, but also a terrible long-term strategy as a host of research shows.

Partisan identification in one’s early years becomes “a remarkably stable factor over a voters’ life.” So when you have nearly 51% of “millennials identifying as Democrats or leaning Democratic, compared with 35% who identify with the GOP or lean Republican,” you’re alienating the next generation for (perhaps) the rest of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. An influential work on party identification, The American Voter (1964), found that “persons who identify with one of the parties typically have held the same partisan tie for all or almost all of their adult lives.”

Everything which I’ve just laid out seems to be excellent news for Democrats. So why am I nervous about these findings?

Here’s the rub. The Republican surrender of the youth vote could benefit the conservative movement in a key way: it may stop Democrats from lurching even further to the left.

By largely gifting Democrats the youth vote for at least the next decade, Democratic politicians may, in turn, take these voters for granted and continue to pitch incrementalism, all the while knowing they’ll receive the majority of the youth vote anyways. After all, Democrats will only have to point to Republicans (who will *most likely* still be pandering to xenophobic and misogynistic voters) and say, “We’re better than that.” In fact, that’s exactly what Clinton has been doing in this primary:

By resting on their incrementalist laurels, however, Democrats could make an electoral mistake. If they preach gradual progressivism, then they could give Republicans an opening to become the party which offers the American people a transformative vision. Just today, the New York Times editorial board warned that Democrats must address how they have “strayed at times from [their] more aspirational path.” Merely throwing lean bones to the dramatic-change camp will not cut it for Democrats going forward. Eventually they will have to address the “broad vein of discontent” that pulses through America today and calls for an overhaul.

There’s a reason why the Trump campaign is actively wooing Bernie Sanders supporters. Listen to what Sanders supporter Marina Coddaire had to say at a Trump rally (emphasis mine):

‘I feel that the core of both what Bernie’s movement is and Trump’s movement is, is the same. This anti-establishment, being upset with the way that our government has been run and how the mistakes that they’ve made have really damaged the middle class and have disenfranchised them,” Coddaire said. ‘This cry of change. The way that they’ve both gone about it is of course different but I still respect it.’

Clearly this woman is not indicative of all Bernie supporters. What I’m trying to convey in this quote is that Democrats do not have a monopoly on the concept of dramatic change. If Democrats do not answer this cry from the American electorate, eventually a well-packaged Republican will come in and seize this voting bloc.

Maybe I’m overestimating the GOP here. Would the party be able to safely navigate a supportable dramatic-change candidate through their primary process in the next general election? It appears unlikely. But I suppose you should never underestimate the potential for reinvention in politics.

The Democratic Party has an incredible advantage right now. While the last eight years have laid the foundation for an entire generation’s lifelong commitment to the party, the coming years gives them the opportunity to cement their allegiance. In order to do this, Democrats must follow their supporters to the left. Or else.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.