While Mitt Romney missed benchmarks with many disparate demographic groups on Election Day, the Republican Party might be said to have a single, overriding challenge moving forward: to adjust to generational change. Over the last decade, a wave of new, diverse, and socially moderate voters has reshaped the electorate, allowing President Obama to win the popular vote without much, if any, improvement over John Kerry among voters who were eligible to participate in the 2004 presidential election. Romney won voters over age 30 by a 1.5-point margin, but their slight preference for the Republican nominee was swamped by Obama’s decisive 24-point victory among 18-29 year old voters.
To a certain extent, the GOP’s problem with young voters is a product of their weakness with non-white voters, since young Americans are far more diverse than their elders. According to the exit polls, about 40 percent of 18-29 year old voters were non-white, and the ascent of these voters is the principle driver of the declining white share of the electorate. In 2012, just 56 percent of 18 year olds were white, and that figure will steadily decline through at least 2030, when this year’s infants—the first year of minority-majority births—become eligible to vote. But the youngest voters also tend to vote more for Democratic candidates after controlling for demographics. This is especially true for young white voters. Although 18-29 year old white voters did not vote for the president, Romney only won their vote by a modest 51-44 margin, far less than Romney’s 61-38 lead among whites older than age 30. If the GOP does not make inroads with millennial white voters, young whites would slowly reduce the GOP’s share of white voters as they replace older and more conservative white voters departing the electorate.
The GOP should not discount Democrats' relative strength with young whites as the fleeting product of college flirtations with liberal professors. The culture wars of the last few decades have divided white voters along religious lines, but young voters are less religious than their elders—ensuring a tough time for the GOP. For decades, the GOP formula for an outsized share of the white vote has been straight forward: decisively win white evangelicals, which make up about 33 percent of white voters; in exchange, lose non-Christian whites, who represent a far smaller 20 percent of white voters; and then fight for white non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics. Although Republicans tend to carry non-evangelical Christians, the principle source of the GOP’s lead among white voters is their alliance with the largest group of white culture warriors. But a recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study finds that only 22 percent of 18-29 year olds consider themselves Evangelical Christians, compared to 31 percent who are non-Christian. These figures are for all young voters, so a larger share of young white voters are likely unaffiliated and Evangelical than suggested by the numbers for all 18-29 year olds.
The voting preferences of younger voters in controversial ballot initiatives on social issues demonstrate that young voters differ considerably from their elders on the cultural questions that have divided the two parties in recent presidential elections. Young voters supported gay marriage by decisive margins in Maine, Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland, with support for gay marriage even outpacing support for the president among 18-29 year old voters in Minnesota. Young Coloradans also offered less support to the president than they did to marijuana legalization, which earned the support of more than 70 percent of 18-29 year olds.
Many 18-29 year old voters became politically aware during the Bush years, and it might be difficult for the GOP to erase their memories of the formative political battles that shaped their political identity and perceptions of the two parties. At the very least, the GOP cannot re-litigate the cultural issues that defined the last four presidential elections and again divide the electorate along utterly predictable lines for a fifth consecutive election. Perhaps the GOP can cast losing issues aside and find new issues that divide young voters along more favorable lines, as even Tea Party-favorite Rand Paul seems to be suggesting about gay marriage and marijuana. Historically, elections following two-plus terms of consecutive control of the presidency by the same party have offered the out-party their best opportunities to make adjustments and redraw the battle-lines on more favorable terms, as Bill Clinton did in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000. That makes 2016 a critical opportunity for Republicans, and passing on it isn't optional. The GOP cannot afford many more years worth of 18 year old voters entering the electorate and voting for Democrats by a 24 point margin.