Ron Brownstein has a new piece in The Atlantic interrogating Donald Trump’s support—or lack thereof—and what it might mean for Democrats. It contains some eye-popping numbers, such as the huge differential swings among white Millennials with and without college degrees. Brownstein also notes Trump’s very low approval ratings among 18 to 29 year olds, which have ranged between the low-20s and the low-30s depending on the pollster.
This raised a secondary question for me about age cohorts in the Age of Trump: namely, is this anything new? In the background of these thoughts is the common misconception that young people have always tended to vote more Democratic than the rest of the population. Actually, while the age gap existed during Hippie Era, it essentially went into hibernation until George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection and then exploded during the Obama years.
If anything, the relative advantage Democrats have held with younger generations is anomalous until proven otherwise, so it is notable (if not necessarily surprising) if it endures into the Age of Trump. To that point, I looked at the age variation in approval ratings across recent presidencies.
As I mentioned, the age gap is a recent development. If you take the average approval ratings from their entire presidencies (as Gallup has done here), there is virtually no difference between levels of support from the youngest and oldest voters. In the Obama years, this changed, and on average his approval rating was 16 points higher among 18-29 year olds than it was among Americans over the age of 65. Based on recent polling of Donald Trump, he may indeed be headed for an even bigger gap: according to the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, he is getting 28% from 18-29 year olds and 52% from over-65s—a yawning gap of 24 points.
However, a bit more context is probably necessary, because averages can be misleading when seeking out trends. The young/old gap in approval actually varied quite a lot during Obama’s presidency, and if you take only his last year in office, the age gap was much larger—24 points, in fact, exactly the same as under Trump (but reversed, with positive ratings higher among young people).
So, in one sense, the age gap in the Age of Trump is picking up from where it left off under Obama. On the other hand, while Trump has gained only 9 points on Obama’s 2016 average among the oldest age cohort, he trails Obama’s average among young people by a massive 39 points, and even trails Bush 43’s average by 18 points. Millennials continue to vote at much lower rates than older voters, so Republicans have generally had the better end of the deal when it comes to the age gap. Whether that continues to be the case as Millennials grow from 30% to 45% of the electorate over the next 8 years… well, we’ll just have to wait and see.