The Millennials are coming

Virginia and New Jersey

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017, was a big night for Democrats. Democrats won a lot of races they were not expected to win, especially in the well-educated suburbs that were supposed to make the difference for Hillary Clinton last year, but didn’t.

One thing that stuck out to me, though, was what the exit polls told us about young voters. Here’s what I tweeted that night:

Later in the week I put together a more detailed table tracking the youth vote, displayed below.

va exits age

The additional context demonstrates a couple of things. For one, McAuliffe’s relatively poor performance with young voters in 18-29 may have been a fluke, or simply polling error (exit polls are, after all, polls, and they have error**). Yet the fact still remains: Northam did extremely well with young voters, capturing a larger percentage of the 18-29 year-old vote than any statewide candidate in recent memory, with the exception of Mark Warner. Ex-Gov. Warner won 71 percent of the youth vote in 2008, but that was while he was winning 65 percent of the vote across all ages against ex-Gov. Jim Gilmore.

Northam also did particularly well among the 30-44 crowd, who vote at higher rates and make up a much larger share of the electorate. One thing to note here that will become relevant again lower down: nearly half of 30-44s are now Millennials, the oldest of whom are now around 35 or 36 years old. Meanwhile, Northam did about average with voters over 45, and that’s key – it was the age gap between young and old that was especially unique.

I compiled a similar dataset for New Jersey, and the same picture emerged. In Murphy’s case, he really was the strongest candidate since at least 2004 among voters aged 18 to 29 (caveat: exit polls do not appear to have been conducted for Booker’s elections in 2013 or 2014, or for Lautenberg’s in 2008). Murphy won “only” 56 percent statewide, but took a massive 73 percent among 18-29 year-olds and 63 percent among 30-44 year-olds

nj exits age.png

This is one reason why talk of Northam (or Murphy) reassembling either the Clinton coalition, or the Obama coalition, strikes me a little off base. What happened this November is something relatively new, at least generationally.

In fact, Northam’s coalition first reminded me of an election that took place outside of Virginia – outside of the United States, actually.

The United Kingdom

Earlier this year, I noticed something funny about the three most recent UK-wide elections – the 2015 General Election, the 2016 EU Referendum, and the 2017 General Election.

Age polarization exploded for the Brexit vote in 2016. Then, in the 2017 general elections, voters split along age lines again – and in a way that looked a lot more like the EU referendum than the previous parliamentary election.

I lived in London from 2008 to 2015, and I think (hope) I can provide a bit of anecdotal context for this. First of all, most young people in Britain – certainly those born in the late-1980s or after – literally can’t remember a Britain that wasn’t part of the modern EU. The last time the European question was officially on the ballot was 1975, a referendum on joining the European “common market,” a precursor of the Union (which was founded in 1993). The 2016 referendum campaign was about a lot of things, but the defining issue was immigration, with the “Leave” camp arguing for a whole lot less of it. More generally though, the debate about In-versus-Out became a proxy for a generational debate. The most powerful argument in favor of Leave was not really about policy, but a feeling of nostalgia for a previous version of Great Britain – one that no UK Millennial has ever experienced. But Remain ran an uninspiring campaign and its victory seemed inevitable to most people; turnout, particularly among young people, was dismal (sound familiar?).

The margin for “Remain” among young people, however, was gargantuan. When they effectively got a second chance to vote against Brexit – in 2017, by voting against the Tories who brought it about (and to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, who really had great appeal among young Britons) – the Remain margin returned, but, for the first time in a generation, young people actually turned out, and Labour massively outperformed expectations.


The Past

That brings us to 2017. Below is a chart I posted in March.

Trump’s approval is down a little across all age groups since then, but the general point I was making holds up. The gap in approval for Trump continues to look like an inverted version of the gap that prevailed for Obama, in a contrast with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A notable aside: Trump’s approval rating is much higher overall than Bush’s at the end of two terms, a failed war, and a trashed economy – but that’s only because of older voters; with younger voters, 2017 Trump is already about level with 2008 Bush.

Generally I think there is a belief out there that younger voters have always leaned further to the left than the rest of the county, only to grow more conservative as they grow older, marry, move to the suburbs, start paying taxes.  As the graphic above illustrates, this was not generally the case for Clinton or Bush 43 in terms of average job approval.

Presidential exit polls over the past 40 or so years allow us to look even further back. In the illustration below I’ve taken the percentage support for the Democratic presidential candidate among each major age group and subtracted from that the national margin – this gives us the Democratic “lean” of each age cohort, essentially controlling for any big swings that affected every generation (as in the Mark Warner case above).


While 18-29 year-old age cohort, shown in turquoise, egregiously rejected Nixon in 1972, it had an average Democratic lean of less than three points from Jimmy Carter until Dubya’s re-election. Then, in 2008, the number shot up to a 14-point Democratic lean, then 10 points, then 9 points.

The trend isn’t limited to elections with Barack Obama – or Trump – on the ballot. Over the same 1976-2006 period the average Democratic lean of 18-29 year-olds in House elections was even smaller, just 2 points, and then it leapt to 9 points in 2008.

The House numbers actually suggest the trend slightly predates Obama, with a generational lean emerging during the Bush years.


Notable in both cases, if not as visually dramatic, is the uptick in Democratic lean among the 30-44 year-olds. Part of this may be Gen-Xers becoming more liberal, but the other shift to consider is that the Millennials who were in their mid- to late-20s when Obama was first elected are now in their mid- to late-30s. This suggests Obama-era Millennials are carrying their left-leaning voting habits into later adulthood, consistent with survey data from Pew Research that finds Democratic identification among the generation has hardly budged since 2008.

That older Millennials have remained about as Democrat-friendly as they were when they started voting is also consistent with research into generational voting habits over the past 60 years. Data scientist Yair Ghitza and statistician Andrew Gelman designed a model of presidential vote preferences and concluded that voting habits are formed in a cumulative process of evaluation of presidential performance over a voter’s lifetime [definitely click on this link to the NYT Upshot write-up of the research for a fantastic interactive data visualization]. However, they also found that events at all ages are not equally important – in fact, events that take place at age 18 are three times more potent in shaping later preferences than events that take place at age 40. People who entered their formative years under Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon remained relatively Democratic for years after, while those who did so under Carter and Reagan developed a lasting Republican lean.

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 4.28.23 PM
Screenshot via the NYT Upshot interactive

The first Millennials turned 18 around 2000: this is a cohort of voters whose formative years took place during the economic boom-times of 2nd-term Bill Clinton, war and financial destruction under George W. Bush, and/or the Obama years. (Much, if not most of the upswing in Obama’s approval rating in 2016 came from Millennials. He left office with an insane 77% approval rating among Millennials – that’s even higher than when he first took office in 2008).

Another, maybe obvious, reason to believe yesterday’s young people will keep their allegiance to the Democratic Party is that Millennials are progressive. Millennials don’t just self-identify as liberal more than their elders, they take more consistently “liberal” positions, and fewer conservative positions, on a range of policy questions. The demographic make-up of the Millennial cohort – 44% come from communities of color, and they are set to be the most educated generation yet – would generally suggest Democratic leanings.

To many people this might feel like a waste of words. Didn’t we already know Millennials are liberals? The problem for Democrats isn’t that Millennials vote Republicans, it’s that they don’t vote at all.

The Future

There’s nothing remarkable about the rise of Millennials as a voting group per se. For a number of reasons – higher income, stable address, practice – previous generations voted more as they grew older, and most of the same factors apply to Millennials as well.

And, unlike in previous election cycles, we are further forward in time. By Pew’s definition (it is by no means the only one) the median Millennial was about 19 in 2008, and so s/he will be about 29 in 2018, a very different stage in life – and voting behavior.

A good illustration of this is from a Wonkblog article using data from Political Data Inc., a California firm. The curve shows turnout rates by age, and what you get is a spike for 18-year-olds and then a gradual, linear increase until turnout plateaus around age 70.

We can use this to see what’s significant about this moment in time for Millennials in terms of their electoral strength. Below, I’ve annotated the graphic to show how Millennials and Baby Boomers have progressed along the curve with each 2-year election cycle (the green box represents 2012).


In other words, Millennials are entering a phase where the whole generation, across all ages, gets more likely to vote each passing year. Boomers and their elders, meanwhile, are declining in numbers (sad, but true) and, in many cases, declining or plateauing in average turnout rates.

Again, this isn’t really unique to these particular cohorts, though I’ve used them as an example. Charles Franklin, who now runs the Marquette Law Poll and who is great on Twitter, produced a chart similar to the one above back in 2008, using 2000 and 2004 data. He went a step further and created a curve that shows the over- and under-representation of age groups in those two elections.

via Charles Franklin/Political Arithmetik

Older voters are “over-represented” in the sense that they make up a larger share of actual voters than they do of eligible voters (in 2016, for example, Millennials and Boomers made up the same share of eligible voters for the first time; but many more Boomers than Millennials actually voted). Franklin found that, for the two elections under consideration, a voter stops being under-represented in the electorate at about age 40 – which is the age of some of the oldest Millennials in around 2022.

Up until now, most of the benefits for Democrats of huge margins among younger voters have been cancelled out by the fact that they’ve lost a little ground among older voters. But due to their higher turnout rates, a “little” actually means a lot. Below is the “Democratic lean” graphic from earlier on, but (very roughly) weighted by average turnout for each age group. Immediately things even out.


It’s not obvious that the Millennial Reckoning will come in 2018, or even 2020. That said, based on data from past elections, it’s when a cohort starts to nudge up against their fourth or fifth presidential election cycle that they start seeing real improvements in turnout rates – and that’s about where Millennials are now. Looking just at how Boomers and Gen-Xers behaved around a similar time, we’d expect Millennial turnout to increase by around 5 or 6 points between 2016 and 2020.


According to one early estimate by Tufts University, turnout among 18-29 year olds increased by 8 points in Virginia and and was steady in New Jersey compared to the last gubernatorial election. Overall, exit polls suggest the 2017 electorate was slightly younger in both Virginia and New Jersey than the 2013 electorate.

Don’t Call it a Realignment

Sean McElwee argued in in Vice recently that the Democratic Party need to tack left on racial and social justice issues to court Millennials. Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson made a case in 2015 that the GOP could, and should, work to win over this rising generation by finding conservative ideas Millennials care about.

This is a reminder that, even if Millennials’ preferences don’t change much, the parties might. It’s part of why political “realignments,” in which the balance of power between the country’s parties alters permanently are so rare.

Another reason is that shifts in one direction with certain groups are often outdone by shifts in the other direction, as was partly the case with young and old voters in the early 2000s. It may be the case that Trump makes up enough ground among older voters to avoid a generational wipeout, but that’s no given, especially with an approval rating now well below 50% among older voters, too.

We haven’t yet seen what it looks like when Millennials come into their own as a voting bloc, and it will almost certainly happen. The only question is, will it happen gradually, or suddenly?

Is there anything going on in American politics that might spur an unusual lurch forward among the nation’s youngest, most diverse and most educated generation? We’ll just have to wait and see.


**Bloggers note, 11/2/2018: There is now better data, newly public, that shows Northam’s improvement among young voters over Clinton was real, but that his improvements were fairly evenly distributed across age cohorts. See here, via the great folks at Catalist. 

The Millennials are coming

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