A recent Quinnipiac poll contained an under-examined finding: A scant 19 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 approve of Donald Trump’s presidency, while 67 percent disapprove. Even among self-described Republicans of this age range, a mere 35 percent approve.
Obviously, this is a problem.
There is a theory—popularized by conservative anti-tax guru Grover Norquist—that says people get locked into political parties when they turn 18 years old and cast their first vote. Republicans had better hope that it isn’t true. My guess is this was more prevalent in the olden days. Casting your first vote for Franklin Roosevelt—or even Ronald Reagan—probably did mean something. It meant you were signing up to be a part of something great—a movement. You were a New Dealer or a Reaganite. You were part of the New Deal coalition or the Reagan Revolution. Young people weren’t just casting a ballot, they were signing up for a cause.
I’m not so sure if people are as loyal today. We change our minds about all sorts of things over a long lifetime. Having said that, it stands to reason there might be psychological reasons why humans would want to avoid giving up on sunk costs. Who wants to admit they were wrong—admit they voted for the wrong person?
Data suggest that if your favorite baseball team wins a World Series when you are 8 years old, you will basically be a fan for life. Is it absurd to think that casting your first vote for president might essentially lock you into a political “team” for the next few decades?
And if it’s true that the first politician you vote for might have a positive enduring impact, it’s probably also true that the first politician you hate might also stick with you. This is true long before we turn 18. I never got to vote for Ronald Reagan, but he shaped me far more than any of the Bushes. But what if instead of Reagan, my political worldview had been formed during the downfall of a President Richard Nixon?
“First impressions matter,” writes conservative Bill Kristol. “Most people don’t change their political views radically from the ones they first hold. For young Americans today, Donald Trump is the face of Republicanism and conservatism.”
There is a danger that Trump will tarnish the brand—not just for himself—but for all the other Republicans who are carrying his water. “If he is indeed permitted to embody the party and the movement without challenge, the fortunes of both will be at the mercy of President Trump’s own fortunes,” Kristol continues.
One of the problems with Trump has always been that he doubles down on all the demographics that are shrinking. Trump performs pretty well among married, white, college-educated old people who live in rural areas. Those of us who urged the GOP to go in a different direction were at least partly anticipating a future where there won’t be enough of these people to elect a president.
This raises a question. In 20 years, will a new crop of old people simply tune into Fox News and replace them? Or will the Fox News Trump voter (for lack of a better term) simply go extinct? The old line that says “a person who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart and a person who is not a conservative at 40 has no head” became a cliché for a reason. It’s probably not a surprise that young people skew more liberal. The question here is whether a party can long endure when its standard bearer has the support of just 19 percent of young voters.
We are seeing a microcosm of this play out in the special election taking place in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey, Republican Karen Handle is crushing Democrat John Osoff among voters over the age of 65. Ossoff is winning everybody else, with younger voters seemingly more inclined to back the 30-year-old Democrat.
It would be easy to dismiss this race as anecdotal. After all, there are 435 House seats; this is merely one of them. But it could turn out to be an important surrogate battle within the Democratic party. If Ossoff prevails, it might persuade Democrats that the key to defeating Republicans (in the House, at least) is to eschew Bernie Sanders populism that might resonate in places like the Rust Belt, and instead focus on suburban areas with young, tech-savvy voters.
Ossoff is 30 and Donald Trump is about to turn 71, and it is tempting to draw conclusions about this—to suggest that the candidates’ age matters. But it doesn’t. The aforementioned Sanders is 75, yet he is wildly popular with millennials. Likewise, Reagan, the oldest president, performed well with the youths of America.
A 1984 Time magazine article noted that Ronald Reagan’s “popularity rating is highest of all among those who are 18 to 24 years old. What is more, members of this age group are registering as Republicans rather than as Democrats or independents, by ratios of 2 to 1 and 3 to 1, reversing a trend that began more than 40 years ago.” The article also quotes Republican pollster Robert Teeter’s observation that “for the first time since Roosevelt there is a significant group in the electorate who are Republican in greater overall numbers than Democrat. If these people stay loyal, you may have a much stronger Republican Party.”
For years, the GOP ran on the borrowed capital of Ronald Reagan. Grover Norquist, it seems, had a point about young voters sticking with the Gipper. Could Donald Trump be the anti-Reagan? For the GOP’s sake, here’s hoping this phenomenon doesn’t work in reverse.