The Old and White vs. The Young and Brown

The electorate is changing dramatically, and not in the GOP’s favor. Matthew Zeitlin reports.

This is the end of an era, regardless of the results. The 2012 election likely represented the last gasp of an older and whiter coalition that opposed Obama in 2008, voted Democrats out of the House majority in 2008, and aimed to unseat the incumbent president. In the summer of 2010, Ron Brownstein, the National Journal political demography guru, presciently described the stand-off as both racial and generational, between the gray and the brown.

The nation is getting older—much older—but that doesn’t necessarily mean good news for the political party most dependent on the votes of seniors. In 2030, according to Census Bureau projections (PDF), 1 in every 5 citizens will be 65 or older. And today, the older you are, the more likely you are to oppose Obama and identify as a Republican or a conservative. But this older generation, which Pew calls the Silent Generation, is being replaced by a younger, more diverse population. The census also predicts that by 2042, whites will make up less than half the population. The next cohort to become elderly then will be more Hispanic and less white.

The Census Bureau projects that “the share of the population that is White alone is projected to decrease by about 10 percentage points among those 65 years and over and by about 9 percentage points among those 85 years and over between 2010 and 2050.” In 2010, 7.1 percent of the Hispanic population was 65 or older and the Census Bureau expects that number to increase to just under 20 percent in 2050. But the changing composition of the electorate, and the disparate views accompanying that diversity, are already in evidence.

In 2008, John McCain won just a single age group, the over-65 crowd, by 8 points. By contrast, Obama racked up a 2-1 margin among voters under 30. In fact, McCain won seniors by a slightly larger margin than George W. Bush did in 2008. According to a Pew study done right before the 2008 election, Democratic self-identification grew in every age group between 2004 and 2008 except for the 65 and older crowd, in which it fell two percentage points. For voters 18-29, Democratic affiliation rose 13 percent points.

Pew data released in November, 2011 showed young voters preferring Obama by 26 percentage points and 65-plus voters preferring Romney by 10 points. What’s particularly striking about these results is that this political divide among the generations is intensifying. Pew found that “younger people have voted substantially more Democratic … since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006.”

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist and demographer at Emory, wrote in a 2010 paper “Transformation and Polarization: The 2008 Presidential Election and the New American Electorate” that “the generational and racial divides in candidate preference were both the largest in recent history”—Obama won some 95 percent of the black vote and 66 percent of the Latino vote, the latter a 12 point increase over Kerry. And despite what is surely going to be a much closer vote in 2012, Obama looks poised to win even more of the Latino vote. The final projection released by Latino Decisions, a research firm, put Obama at winning between 70.3 and 75.5 of the Latino vote.

And we have every reason for this split to continue and accentuate itself tonight.

This is a story of different generations with different ethnic compositions, separated by stark contrasts in age and attitudes toward government. Pew calls these two groups “Millennials” and “Silents.” The “Silents,” aged 66 to 83, make up 17 percent of registered voters and are 19 percent white. They are the new face of elderly America, say Social Security is their most important issue, are more likely to describe themselves as conservatives, are financially most secure and disapprove most strongly of President Obama. They have replaced the “Greatest Generation,” who came of age in the Depression and World War II and came out as consistent Democratic voters, according to Pew.

One striking illustration of their attitudes is how many of them have described themselves as “angry” with the government. In 1997, 15 percent of Silents were “angry” with government. In 2011, it got up to 30 and their engagement, even last year, was far higher in this upcoming election than it was four years prior. Millennials, while not as engaged, have far more positive views of government, with only 13 percent describing themselves as “angry.” Their friendliness toward bigger government largely tracks their ethnic composition—41 percent of them are Hispanic or nonwhite and minorities, overall, tend to have a much more positive view of bigger government than do whites.Brownstein noticed one particularly compelling contrast between the Silents and ethnic minorities: their views on the appropriate size of government. “Just 23 percent of white seniors said they preferred a larger government that offers more services; 61 percent preferred a smaller government that offers fewer services.

Among minorities, the attitude was essentially reversed: 62 percent preferred a larger government and 28 percent a smaller one.”

Abramowitz cites exit polls from 2008 showing that 91 percent of the 45 and older population was white but that whites only made up 66 percent of those voters under 45. Looking farther down the road, Abramowitz cites Census data showing that between 54 and 60 percent of the under-five, 5-13, and 14-17 demographics are white, compared to just over 80 percent of the 65-plus group.

As Silents get replaced by Baby Boomers, and the entire voting population becomes more brown, the ethnic and ideological composition of the parties will have to change in order maintain rough parity.

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Just looking at age, the transformation is even more stark. More people are turning 18 than turning 65, and deaths are largely concentrated among the old. According to Rock The Vote (PDF), there are 4,197,500 new 18 year olds every year (11,500 a day) . In 2011, the AARP put the figure (PDF) for new 65 year olds at, on average 7,000 people a day, some 2,550,000 in the year. And for those 65 and older dying (PDF), it’s a grim 1,830,553 a year, just over 5,000 a day.

Abramowitz concluded his paper making the argument that “The GOP’s electoral base has also been shrinking. Its voters are disproportionately white, socially conservative, middle-aged or older, and located in small towns and rural areas. In a country that is becoming increasingly urban, nonwhite and socially tolerant, that is not a good position to be in.” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, put it another way when he said this summer that Republicans were “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Today, enough angry white guys could put Romney over the top. But it may be the last time.