Age of Voters Will Decide Election
Key fact: a vast difference in political views between those under and over age 40.
Much has been made of the division between red and blue states nationally, and between red and blue counties in states like Wisconsin. But there is another factor dividing people that will likely to be the key to who wins in November: the age of those voting.
Veteran pollster Charles Franklin, who does the Marquette Law School polls, has averaged the partisan slant of poll respondents by age over the last 10 years, which shows a starkly consistent difference between older and younger voters in the state. Among Generation Z (those born since 1997) 54% identity as Democrats or “lean Democrat,” versus just 36% who identify as Republican or lean Republican. Among Millennials (born 1981 to 1996), 50% identify as Democrat or lean Democrat, versus just 39% who identify as Republican or lean Republican.
Indeed, you might think this even after you look at the relatively even partisan makeup of the other, older generations. Among Generation X (born 1965-1980) in Wisconsin, there’s a 5-point edge for those who identify as Republican or lean Republican. But among Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), there’s 3-point edge for those who identify as Democrat or lean Democrat. For the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) there’s no edge for either party and for the Greatest Generation (born pre-1928), there’s a 4-point edge for those who identify as Republican or lean Republican.
When you add in the fact that the biggest number of voters is found in the Millennial and Baby Boomer generations, who together account for 57% of the voting age population and both lean Democratic, and then add in Generation Z voters, who are heavily Democratic, it would still seem that Democrats should have a massive advantage.
Except. You have to take account of voter turnout. And that’s where the older, Republican leaning voters over perform.
Franklin’s last two polls, in September and October, measured voter enthusiasm and the results show a huge edge for older voters. In October just 59% of those aged 18-29 and 69% of those aged 30-39 say they are likely to vote, versus 78% of those aged 40-49, 81% of those 50-59, 89% of those aged 60-69 and 81% of those aged 70 and older.
When asked how enthusiastic they are about voting, a similar difference emerged in the September and October polls. By October just 41% of those aged 18 to 29 and 51% of those aged 30-39 said they are very enthusiastic about voting, versus 61% of those aged 40-49 and a whopping 79% for those 60 to 69.
Nationally there has been considerable attention to the issue of turnout by voters under age 30, with some positive trends. A Census Bureau report found that 36% of voters aged 18-29 voted in the 2018 midterm election, versus just 20% in 2014.
And Tufts University, which measures civic involvement, estimated that 50% of Americans aged 18-29 voted in the 2020 presidential election, up significantly from 39% in 2016. (As Franklin noted, the turnout for younger voters is always considerably higher for presidential elections.)
Since 2013, NextGen America, founded by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, has spent millions to register and push young people to vote. In 2018, the group said it spent $33 million on mobilizing youth voters in 11 battleground states, including some $2.5 million in Wisconsin. with 60 paid staff working across 26 college campuses.
In 2020, the group told Urban Milwaukee, its work in Wisconsin involved 38 staff working at 19 college campuses over a period of two years and costing $5.5 million.
When asked about its efforts in Wisconsin for this election NGA press associate Shelby Purdom was far more vague, saying only that “over the last few months, NextGen America has contacted and registered thousands of young voters across the state to prepare them for the midterms.” Is the group spending less on this election?
When you consider the current leadership in the U.S. that might be understandable. America has become a gerontocracy, Politico has declared, with leaders like Joe Biden (age 79), Nancy Pelosi (82), Chuck Schumer (71), Mitch McConnell (80) and Donald Trump (76). At age 57, Kevin McCarthy is the youngster in the group. One can imagine younger people feel they are left out of the decision making in American government.
For that matter, the Wisconsin race for governor, between Evers (age 70) and Tim Michels (60) might not generate much excitement among younger voters. However, the U.S. Senate race features Barnes, just 35 and a member of the Millennial generation. If elected he would become only the second member of the U.S. Senate born after 1980. Whereas his opponent Ron Johnson, age 67, will serve until age 75 if he is reelected.
As Milwaukee writer Dan Shafer declared in a column for the New York Times, Barnes “understands the challenges this era has thrust upon millennials better than most in his position.” He “seems to grasp what the old guard does not… can give voice to issues many in the Senate cannot relate to, and he can do it through lived experience.”
In short, if ever an election could galvanize a big turnout of younger voters in Wisconsin, this should be the one. But past history suggests that’s unlikely.