Is the Surge to the Left Among Young Voters a Trump Blip or the Real Deal?
There is a lot about the American electorate that we are only now beginning to see. These developments have profound implications for the future of both the Republican and the Democratic coalitions.
Two key Democratic constituencies — the young and the religiously unobservant — have substantially increased as a share of the electorate.
This shift is striking.
In 2012, for example, white evangelicals — a hard-core Republican constituency — made up the same proportion of the electorate as the religiously unaffiliated: agnostics, atheists or the nonreligious. Both groups stood at roughly 19 percent of the population.
By 2022, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (better known as P.R.R.I.), the percentage of white evangelicals had fallen to 13.6 percent, while those with little or no interest in religion and more progressive inclinations had surged to 26.8 percent of the population.
Defying the adage among practitioners and scholars of politics that voters become more conservative as they age — millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (those born in 1997 and afterward) have in fact become decidedly more Democratic over time, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Election Study.
I asked Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts who oversees the study, whether he thought the liberal trends among young voters were a temporary reaction to Trump or a more significant change in the electorate.
“I think it’s a real shift,” Schaffner wrote in an email, quoting an analysis from December 2022 by John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times, “Millennials Are Shattering the Oldest Rule in Politics”:
If millennials’ liberal inclinations are merely a result of this age effect, then at age 35 they too should be around five points less conservative than the national average and can be relied upon to gradually become more conservative. In fact, they’re more like 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the U.S. are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history.
Schaffner noted that Burn-Murdoch’s article “is pretty convincing and focuses on not just vote share, but also issue positions, so I don’t think it is just a Trump thing.”
At the same time, Schaffner observed that
Because the population is very big and turnout rates tend to be much higher for older adults, these trends can be slow to lead to significant gains. For example, in 2018, I applied a life expectancy model to our C.E.S. data and using that model I calculated that it would take more than 20 years for Democrats to gain just 3 percentage points on their vote share from differential mortality.
Those gains could easily be offset by Republicans doing a bit better among other groups. For example, part of what has helped them in recent elections is that even while the share of the population who are non-college white people is in decline, it is still a large group that (1) has come to vote more Republican in the past decade and (2) has seen its turnout rate increase during the same period.
In a separate report published this month, “What Happened in 2022,” Catalist, a progressive data analysis firm, found more developments among young voters that favor Democrats: “Gen Z and Millennial voters had exceptional levels of turnout, with young voters in heavily contested states exceeding their 2018 turnout by 6 percent among those who were eligible in both elections.”
What’s more, as the Catalist report noted,
65 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported Democrats, cementing their role as a key part of a winning coalition for the party. While young voters were historically evenly split between the parties, they are increasingly voting for Democrats. Many young voters who showed up in 2018 and 2020 to elect Democrats continued to do the same in 2022.
In addition, the report found that
Women voters pushed Democrats over the top in heavily contested races, where abortion rights were often their top issue.” Democratic performance improved over 2020 “among women in highly contested races, going from 55 percent to 57 percent support. The biggest improvement was among white non-college women (+4 percent support).
So why haven’t Democrats returned to the kind of majority status the party enjoyed from the 1930s to the mid-1960s? Why does the conservative coalition that emerged in the late 1960s remain a competitive force in 2023?
One answer came from Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at Notre Dame, who noted in an email that
As whites’ and white Christians’ numbers have declined, their sense of threat and anxiety over losing their dominant position in American society and culture has increased, making conservatism and the Republican Party (particularly Republican candidates like Trump who promise to restore that dominant position) more attractive to them.
Layman cited 2000 and 2020 data from American National Election Studies to prove his point:
White working-class people, white evangelicals, white Catholics, and white Christians in general all voted significantly more Republican in 2020 than in 2000. White people with no college education: 56 percent for Bush in 2000, 68 percent for Trump in 2020. White evangelicals who regularly attend church: 75 percent for Bush in 2000, 89 percent for Trump in 2020. White Catholics who regularly attend church: 56 percent for Bush in 2000, 67 percent for Trump in 2020.
Layman noted that data from the General Social Survey, a series of nationally representative surveys conducted regularly since 1972, demonstrate the numerical rise in secular voters: “From 1991 to 2021, the percent of Nones increased from 6 percent to 28 percent of Americans. Also, the percent of people claiming to never attend religious services increased from 11 percent to 30 percent between 1991 and 2021.”
The big picture, Layman concluded, “is that religious, demographic, and socioeconomic trends that seem to bode very well for the Democrats and very poorly for the Republicans have not yet had the expected effects because there has been a counter-mobilization toward the G.O.P. among the declining groups.”
For now, Layman wrote,
Those countervailing trends have left the two parties in about the same competitive balance as in 2000. However, as the pro-Democratic sociodemographic trends continue, it will become increasingly difficult for the G.O.P. to stay nationally competitive with a base of just white working-class people, devout white Christians, and older white people. The Republicans are starting to max out their support among these groups.
The white backlash to the growing strength of liberal constituencies not only prompted conservative voters to back Republicans by higher margins, they also turned out to vote at exceptionally high rates to make up for their falling share of the electorate.
Robert Jones, founder and president of P.R.R.I., pointed out by email that both white Protestant and white Catholic Christians punch well above their weight on Election Day: “Key white Christian subgroups — which strongly supported Trump and Republicans — were significantly overrepresented in the electorate compared to their proportion of the population.”
He cited poll data that showed
White evangelicals: proportion of population in 2020, 14 percent, proportion of voters, 22 percent. White Catholics: proportion of population in 2020, 12 percent, proportion of voters, 16 percent.
In contrast, Jones wrote, nonreligious voters are somewhat underrepresented on Election Day: “Religiously unaffiliated: proportion of population in 2020, 23 percent, proportion of voters, 21 percent.”
White Christians are, in effect, engaged in a herculean struggle to maintain political power.
“As recently as 2008, when our first Black president was elected, the U.S. was a majority (54 percent) white Christian country,” Jones wrote. “By 2014, that proportion had dropped to 47 percent. Today, the 2022 Census of American Religion shows that figure has dropped further to 42 percent.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, Jones continued, “the largest white evangelical denomination, has now lost more than 3 million members since its peak in the early 2000s.”
I asked Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, who has conducted extensive research on partisan trends among various religious denominations, why Democrats haven’t regained firm majority status.
Burge emailed to say that he agreed that the rapid rise of the nonreligious has raised Democratic prospects, but, he noted, “It’s not like all the Nones have shifted to the Democrats. Republicans have gotten 40 percent of the increase, too.”
In addition, Burge argued, it’s important to distinguish between consciously secular atheists and agnostics and more passive men and women who have simply lost interest in religion.
While atheists are solidly Democratic and highly engaged in politics, Burge said,
Most of the Nones — around 60 percent — are nothing in particular. They are incredibly disengaged from the political process. They don’t go to school board meetings. They don’t put up political yard signs. Which means that their voter turnout is very low. They also aren’t die-hard Democrats. In 2020, they were no more than 64 percent for Biden.
Atheists, in contrast, have become one of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies, according to the Cooperative Election Study, voting 87-9 for Biden over Trump. Agnostics favored Biden 80-17. Together, atheists and agnostics make up roughly 12 percent of the population.
In a May 15 posting on Substack, “No One Participates in Politics More than Atheists,” Burge wrote:
Here’s what I believe to be the emerging narrative of the next several decades: the rise of atheism and their unbelievably high level of political engagement in recent electoral politics. Let me put it plainly: Atheists are the most politically active group in American politics today.
My exchange with Burge prompted him to add another piece to his Substack, “Given the Rise of the Nones, Why Aren’t Democrats Winning Most Elections?”
In that essay, Burge elaborated on the point he mentioned earlier:
Every time a party (the Democrats, in this case) tries to appeal to a new set of voters (Nones), it leaves the other part of its flank exposed (white Christians). The opposite party then swoops in and takes over that part of the electorate. Thus, parties continue to try and make their tent bigger, which inevitably pushes other folks out of the tent to be scooped up by the opposing party.
While the right has engineered a countermovement — a holding action — that has at least temporarily kept ascendant liberal constituencies at bay, the trends among young voters have begun to erode Republican competitiveness.
There is another area in which the Democratic advantage among younger voters has already begun to pay off: campaign contributions.
In their April 13 paper, “Old Money: Campaign Finance and Gerontocracy in the United States,” Adam Bonica, a political scientist at Stanford, and Jacob Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, demonstrate that younger campaign contributors lean decisively left:
As a group, Millennial/Gen Z donors are overwhelmingly supporting Democrats and left-leaning organizations and causes, with 85 percent of these donors with left-of-center DIME (Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections) scores. And of those who donate to Democrats, they are giving disproportionately to support progressive candidates and causes. This trend is largely driven by the leftward turn among young professionals and college graduates.
Bonica and Grumbach continue: “While Millennials and Generation Z remain heavily underrepresented in fund-raising for now, as their share of total contribution dollars inevitably increases, the campaign finance landscape will shift in response.”
Republicans will be at a disadvantage in fund-raising from the mass public, forcing them to rely more on megadonors. And in terms of within-party competition, it signals a much stronger fund-raising environment for progressives within the Democratic Party.
The accompanying chart from the Bonica-Grumbach paper shows how the Democratic share of donors grows steadily as the donors get younger and younger:
In another study of the 2022 election, released earlier this month, the demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings, cited a steady decline in the share of the electorate made up of whites with no college degrees, a key source of Republican support.
The vote share of this cohort fell steadily in every nonpresidential election — from 50.0 percent in 2006 to 37.7 percent in 2022. In contrast, whites with college degrees, an increasingly Democratic constituency, grew from 30.5 percent of all voters in 2006 to 35.5 percent in 2022.
The nonwhite share of the electorate, Frey found, rose from 19.5 percent in 2006 to 26.7 percent in 2022, a slight drop from the record 27.2 percent in 2018.
Two decades ago, Republican leaders were convinced that the Southern strategy — initiated by Richard Nixon and followed up by Ronald Reagan with his successful mobilization of the white working class — was running out of gas. After they lost for a second time to President Barack Obama, top Republicans argued in a March 2013 “autopsy report”— issued by the Republican National Committee — that “in the past six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 211 for the Republican” while “public perception of the party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
What should Republicans do, according to the report? “We need to campaign among Hispanic, Black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them.” Republicans need to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” and “when it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming.”
Three years later, in 2016, Donald Trump rejected this strategy out of hand and instead proved that a Republican candidate stressing the grievances of white America against immigrants and minorities could, in fact, win — albeit without a popular vote victory and, so far. for just one term in the White House.
Trump’s defeat in 2020 revealed some Democratic weaknesses that are likely to become the focus of future contests as Republicans struggle to piece together a winning coalition.
The Catalist report points to gains by Trump and Republican candidates among racial and ethnic minorities. The level of Hispanic support for Republican House candidates rose from 29 percent in 2016 to 38 percent in 2020, where it stayed in 2022. In a separate report on the 2020 election, Catalist found Black support for Republican candidates rose by three points from 7 percent in 2016 to 10 percent in 2020.
These trends virtually guarantee that the Republican Party will pull out the stops in 2024 in an attempt to persuade a portion of the minority electorate — religious, conservative, centrist and entrepreneurial voters of color — to vote for their candidates.
It may be an uphill struggle, but no one should count the Republican Party out. While overall demographic and ideological trends may be pointing toward an increase in Democratic clout, the Republicans will seek to bolster their shrinking white base with support from ideologically sympatico minorities. This may look like a tough sell for a party with the Republicans’ record on civil and minority rights, but in American politics these days, almost anything is possible.
Graphics by Sara Chodosh.
Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to the Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post. @edsall"