Politics April 2013

Has Obama Turned a Generation of Voters Into Lifelong Democrats?

The prospects for a new liberal age

Paul Ryan had a vision for the youth vote in 2012. In his speech accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination, the Wisconsin congressman imagined legions of recent college graduates forced to “live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”

Ryan was sure those kids had recovered from their passing Obama fever and would either stay home or vote Republican. What happened, of course, was very different. The under-30 vote went nearly as strongly for Obama as it had before: Obama got 66 percent of the under-30 vote in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012, the best youth-vote showings for any presidential candidate since 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18. Against the by-now-familiar backdrop of massive Obama rallies on college campuses, liberal youth might just seem like the normal order of things. But there’s nothing natural about it. Ronald Reagan came within a point of capturing the under‑30 vote in his 1980 presidential election, then won it by 19 points in 1984, giving the lie to the idea that kids are inherently liberal.

Now some Democrats hope Obama’s repeat success with young voters signals the arrival of a cohort whose members will vote Democratic for the rest of their lives. “These are voters who are in their formative years, politically,” Joel Benenson, the lead pollster for the Obama campaign, told me excitedly in the days after the election. “People frequently maintain the partisan identity that shapes their entry point into politics. What’s happening now is something people will hang on to for decades to come.”

Could Benenson be right? Has Obama turned an entire generation of voters into lifelong Democrats? The answer, according to political scientists who study partisanship, may well be yes. Voting for a party is a habit, they say, and the habit tends to stick. The Americans who came of age under FDR leaned more Democratic than the electorate as a whole for the rest of their voting lives. Many of today’s oldest voters—who broke for Mitt Romney by a wider margin than any other age group—cast their first, formative ballots in the Eisenhower years. And the Reagan era (spanning his 1980 election, his 1984 reelection, and the 1988 election of his vice president, George H. W. Bush) had a particularly marked effect on the rising voters of the 1980s. The Americans who entered the electorate during that time have remained disproportionately loyal to the GOP compared with voters overall.

Americans who entered the electorate during the Reagan era have remained disproportionately loyal to the GOP compared with voters overall.

In their 2002 book, Partisan Hearts and Minds, the political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler argue that party loyalty is a tribe-like social identification. Despite parties’ shifting stances on issues, and despite changes in personal beliefs over time, voters tend to continue to affiliate with the same political party. (Think of the “yellow-dog Democrats” of the South, segregationist conservatives who, it was said, would vote for a yellow dog before they’d cast a ballot for a Republican. After national Democrats switched to championing civil rights in the 1960s, these voters did eventually begin to vote with the GOP—but it took decades for them to relabel themselves as Republicans.)

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Molly Ball is an Atlantic staff writer.

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