Forget diversity, the Republican Party has a looming age problem.
If you buy into political tropes, you’ll know that Republicans are seen as the party of the crusty, old, white person. Historically that may have been a branding problem that was not reflective of reality, but as each new generation comes of age we’re seeing the GOP lose its foothold on a viable future.
In tandem with the Republican Party, the once fundamental organizations to a community are dying off for lack of recruitment and retention. Young people just are not as interested in becoming Rotarians or Masons. If you do not replenish your ranks, your tribe will fail as soon as mortality catches up with your remaining members. Like any large organization, for decades the Republican Party could count on replenishing its numbers with new members as the existing ones became inactive. That’s changing, and voting preference data by age group is showing us how.
This is the prospect facing the Republican Party: a future in which it loses relevance for lack of new blood. To shed light on this trend, let’s look at two points in time that are separated by almost a generation: 1994 and 2017.
When I first laid eyes on this chart from the Pew Research Center showing partisan leanings by generation, a few things stuck out. On the left you’ll see those with solid political identification (Republican, Democrat, independent) and on the right you have the partisan leanings (lean Republican, lean Democrat) by generation over the same time period.
It takes some mental gymnastics to compare the generations apples-to-apples, but if you look at the Millennials at the top, you’ll see a death warrant for the Republican Party’s future. It’s because Millennials had a significantly worse opinion of the GOP as they started voting than their predecessors.
Before Millennials, Generation X came of age in the mid-nineties and you’ll notice their political identifications and leanings were not alarmingly skewed to one side at the start. The most noticeable trend among X-ers is that their Republican identification dipped from 34% to 25% over 23 years and went toward identifying as independents, up 5% in a trend away from labels not experienced by the Boomers before them. Meanwhile X-er partisan leanings toward Republicans also took a dip in support, dropping from 49% to 43% as Generation X trended toward Democrats over time.
That in itself suggests that as Republicans look for precinct captains and candidates today, their talent pool is noticeably lacking the same strength of middle-aged supporters compared to what it had a generation before.
Then you look at the data on Millennials, and if you’re a Republican strategist you presumably update your résumé shortly thereafter.
If the trend line for Republicans within Generation X was bad, it at least didn’t start in the gutter. Millennials started voting with a statistically brutal opinion of Republicans that then found its way to much worse. Millennials entered their polling places with only 27% identifying as Republicans, down 7-points from Generation X at the same age, and have already tanked in their opinion of Republicans in half the time it took Generation X to do the same, they’re now down 10-points on GOP sentiments before they even reach middle age.
Millennial political leanings (the chart in the top right) paint another gruesome picture for conservatives. Millennials started voting with a 53% to 38% lean toward Democrats that has risen in Democratic favor faster than the generation before. Those trends may fluctuate, but it would be difficult — if not impossible — for Republicans to recover completely.
You could make the joke that, “I used to be liberal, then I grew up…” in an effort to claim these Millennials will simply trend more conservative as they age, but that trend was not borne out by the Generation X-ers who preceded the Millennials, and (again) the X-ers started their voting years with a leaning more favorable to Republicans than their Millennial successors to boot. Logic suggests the situation will worsen for perceptions of the GOP, not improve.
Now for the literal Grim Reaper on the doorstep of the GOP: life expectancy in the United States is currently sitting at 78.69 years. For the purposes of a 23-year chart that conveniently means the first of the Boomers are statistically (on average) going to reach the end of their voting activity by 2024, right when the first Millennials will enter their early 40’s — the age-bracket that Generation X is occupying right now.
So imagine when the already lukewarm support the GOP has among the middle-aged is replaced by outright disdain from Millennials aging into that demographic; at the same time the core of GOP support, Boomers, will not have people coming up behind them to take the mantle of their party.
If you need further proof, look no further than the fact that, as of 2015, the average Fox News viewer is 68. This means that, in the law of averages, the conservative cable news megaphone will lose the vast majority of its viewers not to rivals but to the afterlife over the next decade… and are unlikely to pick up new audiences in the meantime.
Without their propaganda machine or support within middle America, you’d be hard-pressed to envision an electoral map in which they keep the White House or the U.S. House of Representatives, as recently exhibited by their resounding defeats in that chamber when the suburbs (filled to the brim with the middle-aged) rebuked the GOP.
Data shows that each generation since the Boomers has in fact trended toward Democrats as they’ve aged, not the other way around.
If a Fortune 500 company was faced with the same prospect of having the bottom fall out of its talent pool you can bet it would be a very visible concern among the C-suite. Instead, as the GOP orders its own autopsy after 2018, it’s clear they think the problem they face is not a prevailing loss of support over time, but with where they put their money the last cycle and how to reconnect with married couples for 2020.
As funny as marriage counseling and financial advice for a political party led by the Trump Family is likely to be, it is a dramatically misplaced step forward. Which is sublime news if you’re one of the many, many Democrats lining up to seek the White House in 2020. If you’re the Democratic nominee for President, what better scenario could you dream for than your opposition looking the wrong way for two years?
Then imagine the long game: if you’re the Democratic National Committee, it seems that instead of waging a resistance, you could just lay siege to the demographics and wage a war of attrition.
All good things to those that wait.