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.)

There’s even intriguing new evidence that the act of voting can itself strengthen party loyalty. In a not-yet-published paper, Elias Dinas, a scholar of U.S. politics at the University of Nottingham, compared first-time voters in the 1968 presidential election with people who were otherwise similar but who didn’t vote that year. Dinas found that Nixon voters were subsequently more Republican, and Humphrey voters more Democratic, than peers who hadn’t voted—an indication that casting a ballot makes a person more partisan.

To be sure, not every president bends the electorate toward his party. Pols like Nixon, Clinton, and Bush, who were hardly known for inspiring youth movements, left the electorate much the way they found it. But to Laura Stoker, a UC Berkeley political-science professor who studies partisanship, the fact that young Obama supporters have affirmed their allegiance in two consecutive presidential elections may herald a generation of Democratic-leaning voters that will skew the composition of the electorate far into the future. “The consistency of young people’s support for Obama in 2008 and 2012 suggests a pattern similar to the 1980s,” she told me. “They are going to be more Democratic than they would have otherwise been, because the character of the first votes cast produces or reinforces a Democratic leaning.”

In the aftermath of Obama’s reelection, Republican pollsters and prognosticators struggled to explain how they got the election so wrong. Many of their erroneous projections were predicated on an electorate comprising roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. They were shocked when more voters told exit pollsters that they identified as Democrats than Republicans, by a 6‑point margin—on par with 2008, which the GOP had considered an aberration. The numerous GOP strategists who explained Obama’s reelection by talking about his campaign’s “turnout” capability were making the same implicit assumption, Stoker points out. “After the election, instead of saying, ‘Oh no, there are more of them, we’re in trouble,’ they continued to believe there were the same number of people out there in each party, but [the Democrats] got theirs to vote,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s true. There is some sign that Democrats have become a clear plurality in the electorate versus Republicans, something that hasn’t been the case since 1980.”

There’s a saying that a young person who isn’t a liberal has no heart, and an old person who isn’t a conservative has no brain. Republicans may be tempted to take solace in the idea that young, liberal voters will sooner or later grow up, but they should resist that fantasy. Paul Ryan, it turns out, had it exactly backward: those Obama posters may fade, but partisan loyalties are durable.