Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Analysis | New data upends how we think about the partisanship of young Americans

Analysis | New data upends how we think about the partisanship of young Americans

A few years ago, I spoke with Columbia University political scientist Donald Green as I was researching my book about the generational shift that’s underway in the United States. My analysis detailed the ways in which younger Americans differed from older Americans, including that they were more diverse and better educated. Those characteristics overlapped with another differentiator: They were more likely to align with Democratic candidates, even as they were less likely to be members of political parties.

Green offered a qualifier to that differentiation.

“You might be surprised, if you looked at the public opinion profile of young people, how ideologically heterodox this otherwise largely liberal group is,” he said. “There are some specific issue positions in which young people are quite distinctive — for example, LGBT equality — but on other issues they’re not.”

This is not how the politics of younger Americans have generally been presented, but there is increasing evidence that it’s a useful way to look at it. Instead of signing on to the battery of positions held by members of the Democratic or Republican parties, many younger, independent voters approach politics like a Spotify playlist — picking out individual songs instead of listening to a whole album. Or, perhaps more importantly, they view some aspects as important and other aspects as less so.

This is overly broad, certainly, both in how it presents younger voters and how it presents older partisans. But it’s a useful way of considering Green’s observation — an observation that comports with recent polling showing rightward shifts among younger Americans. An observation that comports, too, with Donald Trump’s unexpectedly robust support from younger Americans.

Some of the Trump support can be explained by the way in which the country has evolved since 2015. An 18 year-old voting for the first time this year was 6 years old the last time the GOP nominated someone other than Trump as its presidential nominee. A 29 year-old was only 17. The world of Republican politics in which they grew up has always been one dominated by Donald Trump.

That’s distinct from the broader shift, one that appears in different ways and to different degrees in different data. In April, for example, Pew Research Center released data showing a continuation of the familiar pattern in party identification — more liberal to more conservative as the age of respondents increased.

Earlier this week, though, Pew released the most recent iteration of its big, comprehensive National Public Opinion Reference Survey. The NPORS is a benchmark poll that uses a number of different methodologies to ensure responses, including phone, online contact and direct mail. And, as The Washington Post’s Lenny Bronner found after parsing the data, it found a much more complicated interplay between partisan identification and age.

The size of the sample included in the NPORS allowed Bronner to pick out not only age groups but also to often overlay race and gender. The results of that analysis are presented below, with particularly interesting findings identified. They are discussed below. Reading the chart is straightforward: Dark blue indicates respondents who identified as Democrats and light blue those who were independents who tend to vote Democratic. Red bars indicate the same relationship to the Republican Party. Labels at left indicate groups by age, race and gender, among other things.

Discussing the highlighted segments of the chart:

A. Notice that while the total number of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents is fairly consistent across age groups, the number of self-identified Democrats increases dramatically along with the age of the respondent. Less than a quarter of those under the age of 30 identify as Democrats or Republicans. More than a third of those aged 65 and older identify with either major party.

It’s not highlighted, but directly under the overall differentiation by age is the same breakout among registered voters. There’s more partisan identification within this pools of respondents, probably in large part because states generally require partisan registration.

But we shouldn’t ignore the most important aspect here: younger respondents are about evenly divided between the two parties, which hasn’t been the case in recent years. Much of the movement is among those who are leaning independents, a group that often focuses its alignment with one party as a response to disliking the other party. Perhaps, then, some of the movement here has been those leaning independents changing their perceptions of which party they dislike or the extent to which they do so.

B. The lower partisan identification among younger Black- and Hispanic-American respondents is notable as well. (The pool of Asian-American respondents was too small to break out separately.) They are more likely to identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independent than older members of those racial groups, but much less likely to identify as Democrats.

C. The gender-age group most likely to identify as Democratic is older women. The pattern in which younger respondents are less partisan holds when breaking age groups out by gender, with men being less Democratic than women across the board. In fact, every age group of men is as likely to or less likely than the youngest group of women, who are those least likely to identify as Democrats.

Across age groups, men are more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats. Across age groups, the opposite is true for women.

D. The gender-racial-age group most likely to identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independents is young White men. They are more likely to do so — and less likely to identify as Democrats — than the oldest group of White men.

It’s important to note that the sample size here is small, so the margin of error is relatively large. But this is still a break from past polling of partisan identification by age.

The most Democratic gender-racial-age groups are non-White women. White women of every age group are more likely to identify as Republicans than as Democrats. A majority of White women under 30 in this poll identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independent. Again, though, the sample size is small.

Regardless, this data reinforces the idea that the familiar pattern of younger Americans trending heavily to the left has, at least in recent years, been broken. If so, it’s likely that Green identified one reason why: the scale of their liberal political identities was perhaps overstated. It’s also likely that younger voters — perhaps as a response to the candidates and issues that the Democratic Party has presented — have soured on the party toward which they used to lean.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.

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