You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Generation Gap

It isn't just that young voters like Obama--more importantly, over the last eight years, they've come to believe in liberalism.

Young voters played a crucial role in Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In state after state, exit polls showed that Obama received his strongest support from voters under the age of 30. Now that he has clinched the Democratic nomination, Obama is counting on strong support from under-thirties to offset John McCain’s expected advantage among older white voters, some of whom continue to be uneasy about the prospect of an African American president.

Recent polling data suggest that younger voters are poised to turn out and vote for Barack Obama in very large numbers. According to a recent Gallup Poll analysis, in mid-June Obama held a relatively narrow five point lead over John McCain among all registered voters. Among 18-29 year-olds, however, Obama held an enormous 27 point lead, 59 percent to 32 percent. Obama’s support among younger voters was largely responsible for his overall lead in the poll.

Barack Obama clearly has a special ability to connect with younger Americans. For many young people, Obama, like John F. Kennedy in 1960, represents a new generation of leaders not associated with the controversies and failures of the past. It is also much easier for many young people to identify with the 46-year-old Obama, who casually references Jay-Z lyrics on the stump, than the 71-year-old McCain, who has admitted to not knowing how to use a computer. But the strong support that Barack Obama is receiving from younger Americans is not a new development in American politics. It is a continuation of a trend that has been underway since the 2000 election.

Eight years ago, Americans under the age of 30 were almost indistinguishable from their elders in their candidate preferences. According to the 2000 national exit poll, Al Gore received 51 percent of the vote among those under the age of 30 versus 50 percent among those 30 and older. By 2004, however, a generation gap was evident. The national exit poll showed John Kerry receiving 54 percent of the under-30 vote versus 47 percent among those 30 and older. In congressional races in 2006, the gap was slightly larger. According to the national exit poll, Democratic House candidates received 61 percent of the 18-29 vote versus 53 percent among their elders.

The increasingly Democratic voting tendencies of younger Americans have been accompanied by a shift in their party loyalties. According to the exit poll data, the percentage of voters under the age of 30 identifying with the Democratic Party rose from 39 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2006, while the percentage identifying with the Republican Party fell from 37 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2006. In six years, a two-point Democratic advantage had grown to twelve points. In contrast, among older voters, Democratic identification fell from 41 percent to 37 percent between 2000 and 2006 while Republican identification remained unchanged at 36 percent. Although all age groups showed an increase in Democratic voting in 2006, only those under the age of 30 showed an increase in Democratic identification--a possible sign of a long-term realignment.

Today, Americans under the age of 30 are by far the most Democratic age group in the electorate. They are also by far the most liberal age group. In the 2006 national exit poll, self-identified liberals outnumbered self-identified conservatives 34 percent to 25 percent. In contrast, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by 33 percent to 18 percent among those 30 and older.

It’s not just the liberal label that young Americans are embracing. The 2004 National Election Study indicates that on a variety of specific policy issues, Americans under the age of 30 are considerably more liberal than older Americans. One would expect younger Americans to more liberal than older Americans on cultural issues such as gay marriage--and they are (fifty percent of those under the age of 30 favored permitting gay marriage compared with only 30 percent of those 30 and older). However, some of the largest differences between younger and older NES respondents were on questions involving the role of the federal government in domestic affairs; 63 percent of those under the age of 30 wanted the government to provide more services even if it required higher taxes, and 57 percent wanted the federal government to have the primary responsibility for providing health care in the United States. In contrast, those figures were 47 and 44 percent, respectively, for voters over the age of 30.

It is sometimes assumed that liberalism among the young is largely the province of the educated elite--that it is most prevalent among college students and those who have recently graduated from college. But the 2006 National Exit Poll indicates that this assumption is not correct. Among young voters today, liberalism and support for the Democratic Party are actually strongest among those who have not been to college. Sixty-eight percent of those under the age of 30 with only a high school education voted for a Democratic House candidate in 2006 compared with 56 percent of those with some college and 57 percent of college graduates. Similarly, among voters under the age of 30 with only a high school education, self-identified liberals outnumbered self-identified conservatives by 43 percent to 21 percent; among those with some college the ratio was only 33 percent to 25 percent; among college graduates it was only 32 percent to 28 percent.

What explains support for the Democratic Party and liberalism among younger Americans today? One likely explanation is that Americans under the age of 30 have come of age politically during the George W. Bush presidency. The political attitudes of younger citizens are generally influenced much more than those of older citizens by recent events. Just as the political attitudes of an earlier generation of Americans were shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal, the political attitudes of the current under-30 generation have been shaped by the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and economic stagnation. It is no exaggeration to say that the Bush presidency has given both conservatism and the Republican Party a bad name among younger Americans.

There is no guarantee that the current Democratic advantage among younger Americans will last beyond 2008. It was Roosevelt’s New Deal more than the Great Depression that caused many young people during the 1930s to become lifelong Democrats. Discontent with the leadership and policies of George Bush will not turn the current generation of young people into lifelong Democrats. Whether Democrats can turn their temporary advantage into a long-term advantage--one that could help them to solidify their position as the majority party in the U.S. for decades to come--will depend on whether the next Democratic president and Congress can actually deliver the kinds of changes that most Americans, and especially most younger Americans, want including ending the war in Iraq, reforming health care, expanding economic opportunity, protecting the environment, and above all restoring faith in the fairness and competence of government as an institution.

Alan I. Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University.

By Alan I. Abramowitz