This is the final article in the Generational trilogy. It is generally assumed by many pundits and analysts that the habits of voters are locked in for time immortal. After-all there is ample research out in the public sphere suggesting voters partisan preferences are locked into place when they are as young as 25. As much research that goes into these pieces I just do not agree with the end result for one large reason. American politics is not static. The parties are not static. And candidates are not monolithic in their positions.
In the second article I touched on the modern issue-set most voters base their preferences on. Socially abortion and gay marriage are the biggest issues. Fiscally the debt, spending and entitlement programs come into play. On national security there are the hawks and doves with some overlap. Then we come to larger domestic policy which encompasses infrastructure, education, housing, healthcare, etc. Within each of these issues is another set of issues and so on down the line. But the issues can change and as they do the party’s coalitions can shift.
The GOP has never been more dependent on seniors. In 2012 they accounted for almost a third of his total national vote. Likewise the Democratic Party needs to keep winning younger voters. These voters are just coming of age in a sour economy and place significant emphasis on social issues. Most support gay marriage and yet seem evenly split on abortion. Seniors seem to care more about entitlements, education, the debt and spending.
From a purely analytical perspective it has been amazing to watch both parties annoy key parts of their coalition in recent months. Democrats agreement to tie student loan rates to market rates (though they are capped at a certain point) irked young voters. This ensures that if the economy improves and banks up rates, college will get even more expensive. For the GOP, their fiscal tendencies have clashed with seniors desires to protect Social Security and Medicare. Now, none of the issues above seem to suggest that either group of the Republican or Democrats coalitions is going to jump ship. But it does illustrate that in the two party system we have it is hard for them to be everything to all voters (partisan or not).
How long the current issue set holds sway in voters minds depends on the political environment and a set of of unique factors such as time. We have seen how national disasters can rally public support for either side’s agenda. A growing economy also usually mutes strong criticism. But today we have neither of these possibilities. Instead, we have a sluggish economy and no national disaster to rally the country. Generational and ideological lines divide the parties clearly, perhaps almost as clearly as race.
I do not know if this is a good or bad thing. Libertarians might be happy the government is stalled. But even as the voting preferences of multiple groups have hardened under Obama the economy has remain stalled. The New Democratic Coalition has emerged in 2008 and 2012 but disappeared in 2010. Meanwhile, seniors have backed Republican by double-digit margins in three straight elections. It is hard to speculate on what these trends mean. A younger, more diverse electorate would theoretically benefit Democrats more than an older, whiter GOP coalition. However, the modern Democratic coalition is rife with fractures on ethnic, racial and class lines. Republicans main problem seems to be demographic and ideological.
Keep in mind that the Silent/Depression Generation, the most liberal generation since the Millennials (one could argue more than the Millennials) was thought to herald in a new Democratic era well after FDR. It floundered. Instead we had the split 60’s and the GOP dominated 70’s and 80’s. So having younger support does not mean a long-lasting majority. Indeed, it may signify the following generation is the opposite (see Baby-Boomers compared to their parents) than the prior generation.
Both the GOP and Democrats have moved their stances on policy issues to suit their current coalitions much as they have done in the past. The GOP is solidly pro-life, split on gay marriage, fiscally conservative/libertarian and reform orientated. The Democratic Party is solidly the party of urban interests: pro-choice, favors more government spending, less worried about deficits, doveish on foreign policy and protective of nascent government programs as well as entitlements. This helps explain why the generational divide among voting groups is so pronounced.
Baby-boomers are socially conservative and fiscally moderate/conservative., MIllennials are indeed not fiscally conservative and split on social issues. Combine that with Generation X’s split on both issues and you have the largest three blocs of voters basically cancelling each other out. This quick analysis could of course be countered by recent electoral results which suggest Democrats are benefiting from changing demographics. Sure they are. The GOP has also been slow to react. But Democrats were also slow to react in the 80’s and it took a young, dynamic candidate to get them back into the White House. The elections of 2008 and 2012 could be a thing of the past if the GOP runs a solid moderate/conservative candidate that can reach beyond the party’s traditional base.
It should come as little surprise that the parties are where they are electorally, demographically, geographically and issue-wise. Both of have taken steps to appeal to different voting blocs and as a result different generations. Reagan’s call that “Government is not the solution, it is the problem”, was not made in a vacuum. Bill Clinton’s era of “Competent Government” was made to get disaffected Generation X voters back into the process. George Bush’s “Humble foreign policy) was made to get to get voters to focus on his domestic goals and not past GOP interventionist policies.
Where the Millennials ultimate voting preferences end up is hard to predict though it is likely to lean left of center. But as the Democratic Party reacts and moves increasingly to the left will more seniors and Baby-boomers could back the GOP This is certainly possible. What is much more certain however is that both parties will seek to steal parts of each others coalitions and make inroads with voters, young and old. This might be easier for the GOP than Democrats but they seem to have a few votes to spare (if Democrats can get their voters out to the polls).
The modern day issue-set of American politics divides the generations. Both political parties are smart and savvy enough to notice and take advantage of this. But as the issue-set changes, say gay marriage does not become taboo for the GOP or abortion becomes less of a priority for Democrats will both parties react? Or will one exploit the generational divide that thrives in American politics and seems likely to continue into the future.