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A new deep dive into the 2020 electorate by Pew Research contains mostly bad news for Republicans, whose approaching demographic doom is less racial than it is generational. While it shouldn’t be news to anyone at this point that young voters are a solidly blue voting bloc, the more worrisome developments for the GOP are the unexpectedly elderly nature of the party’s coalition and the unyielding Democratic lean of younger voters as they age. If Pew’s numbers are to be believed, the only solidly Republican age demographic last year was 75 and over, meaning that every time the sun comes up, the GOP’s struggle to win a majority of American voters gets harder.
Pew’s in-depth study uses validated voter files – matching panelists to a registration database confirming whether or not they turned out – to offer a different, and possibly more accurate, view of the electorate than the exit polls taken on Election Day. Often this new data can challenge narratives that set in stubbornly and immediately after the votes are counted – in 2016, for example, Pew’s research found that Donald Trump won white women by a considerably smaller margin than Election Day surveys indicated, upending one prevailing story about who was most responsible for Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss.
There were some important differences between exit polls and the new study. For example, Pew found that Trump did better with Latino voters, and worse with Black voters, than exit polls indicated. Still, both sets of numbers showed Trump making modest inroads with these groups, easily the most concerning development for Democrats because of their centrality to the party’s coalition. Exit polls had Trump winning married men by 11 points, while Pew gave this group to Biden by 5. Trump, seemingly paradoxically, lost ground with men and gained some with women, narrowing the overall gender gap. It’s pretty difficult to discern a pattern in these differences, and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
But then there are the age numbers. Biden, predictably, obliterated Trump with the youngest voters – members of the so-called Generation Z, born after 1996, as well as younger millennials. Exit polls had Biden winning 18- to 29-year-olds by 24 points, 60-36, whereas Pew pegs it at 58-38. Exit polls also showed Trump with just a 52-47 edge among voters over 65, and Pew’s numbers came in almost identical – 52-48 for Trump over Biden. And if those were the only topline stats you saw, you wouldn’t think there was a huge problem for Republicans.
But Pew also broke the survey down into not just age groups but generational cohorts. And it’s here where you’ll find the most terrifying information for the GOP. According to Pew, Trump won a decisive majority only with members of the “Silent Generation,” those born between 1928 and 1945 (and the extremely tiny number of living people older than that). Trump dominated that cohort by 16 points, 58-42. That means that the only reliably Republican voter bloc will shrink considerably between now and 2024, and that 65- to 74-year-olds must have been a much more blue-leaning group in 2020 to produce Trump’s comparatively narrow 4-point margin with all over-65s.
You don’t need a degree in actuarial science to know that in general, 65- to 74-year-olds will be around considerably longer than 75- to 102-year-olds. According to the Social Security Administration, a 65-year-old man has a remaining life expectancy of almost 18 years. At 75, it’s just over 11 years, and at 85 it’s less than six. Members of the Silent Generation are expected to shrink from 9 percent of the voting eligible population in 2020 to 7 percent in 2024. And while I hope that my over-75 parents are around as long as humanly possible, if I were a GOP operative I would be apoplectically trying to figure out ways to make the age profile of the average party supporter substantially younger, rather than tripling down on whatever Fox-driven cultural hysteria is dominating headlines in the conservative media. This stuff is not resonating with anyone who has more than 30 years to live.
Perhaps even worse for former President Trump and his acolytes, the Pew data showed little erosion in the millennial preference for Democrats over Republicans. Fifty-six percent of millennials voted for Clinton in 2016, and 58 percent voted for Biden in 2020. Remember, the first millennials voted in 2002, and as a group they simply have not budged. “Elder millennials” are turning 40 this year and they don’t love the Republican Party any more than they did when George W. Bush was lighting several trillion dollars on fire prosecuting a pointless war in Iraq. And that’s terrible news for the GOP’s hopes of ever becoming a majority party again, because if they keep losing the youngest voters by double digits election after election, they need a significant number of them to get more conservative as they age just to hold current margins in place.
That doesn’t mean Democrats are guaranteed to win the next several elections, even if the playing field is fair. “Demography is destiny” as a theory has aged badly, largely because Republicans remain competitive at the national level even as the country becomes more diverse and less white. Trump’s gains among Latino voters helped avert a total bloodbath in 2020, and there is no particular reason why Republicans couldn’t do better with them in 2024, in theory.
After all, Democrats’ deteriorating performance with non-college educated white voters over the past decade offset the ongoing diversification of the electorate. But according to Pew, the rightward march of white voters was halted and marginally reversed by Joe Biden in 2020, who did 4 points better with non-college-educated whites than Clinton. Republicans may have already run headlong into a white ceiling.
Republicans also continue to make up zero ground with young people. This year’s Harvard Youth Poll of 18- to 29-year-olds was the same horror show for the GOP that it has been for years, and it included yet another year of newly eligible voters who are repulsed by the dyspeptic, off-putting spectacle of the modern Republican Party, whose leading thinkers and politicians are staking their 2022 election strategy on a Woke Panic gambit dependent on demonizing an obscure academic concept (Critical Race Theory) and convincing voters that their imminent (and completely imagined) “cancellation” is their most important problem.
Thirty percent of Americans under 29 think Donald Trump was the worst president in American history. Sixty-five percent have an unfavorable view of the former president. Just 18 percent watch Fox News, the primary national vector for viral paranoia and disinformation, regularly. The Pew report is just a brutal document for Republicans. And it suggests that the light at the end of the tunnel, far from illuminating a path out of the wilderness for the GOP, is instead an oncoming, hostile generation poised to put Republicans at a decisive disadvantage in national elections for years.