A lot of younger people (that is, below 50!) on my favorite facebook page are looking forward to this year's election because they are counting on younger voters to defeat Donald Trump. This reminds me of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when left wing Boomers were capturing the nation's admiration (and lots of air time on the evening news), and 18-year olds had just been given the vote. The youth got their candidate in 1972--George McGovern, a public servant whom I always admired very much--but he lost in a landslide. A reader has now identified exit polling data for 1972 in a New York Times chart that shows 18-29 year olds--a perfect match for the Boom--favoring Nixon 54-46 in that year. Conservative Boomers, while quieter, were more numerous. I started poking around in exit polling data over the last twenty years, and then one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had a whole spreadsheet of age breakdowns for every presidential election since 1976. The results are quite striking.
Let's begin with some ground rules. Here are my birth dates for the various living generations--mostly from Strauss and Howe, but asterisks show where I have made changes.
GIs: born 1903*-24
Silent generation: b. 1925-42
Gen X: 1961-81
Gen Z: 1997-(?)
The 1997 start date for Gen Z is becoming increasingly popular
Now unfortunately, the age brackets used by the Roper organization and CNN--my two exit poll sources--rarely match any generation exactly, but one or the other usually comes close enough to get a good idea of who voted for whom. Rather than go from election to election, I'm going to present generational voting histories, which will show a pretty complete evolution for the votes of Boomers, Xers, and, in the three elections in which they have voted in significant numbers, Millennials. We shall find that there is a common thread among them all.
The Silent generation in 1976, the first year of my study, ranged in age from 34 to 51. They were on the conservative side of the nation, and voted for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter by 52-48--the same percentage as the GIs (then 52 to 73), and the even older survivors of the Lost generation. In 1980, aged 38 to 55, they shifted further Republican--as did the whole nation, obviously--and preferred Ronald Reagan to Carter by 55-38, with another 7% for their very own John Anderson. They remained more Republican than the country as a whole in 1984, giving Reagan about 61% of their votes (he won 59% overall) in the most one-sided election in our study, over Walter Mondale, a Silent himself. Faced with the choice between GI George H. W. Bush and Silent Michael Dukakis in 1988, they gave Bush a full 58% of their votes, compared to 53% for the nation as a whole, and just 51% for Bush's own GI generation.
Like the nation as a whole, the Silent generation fragmented and swung towards the Democrats in 1992, giving Boomer Bill Clinton 43% of their votes, Bush just 38%, and H. Ross Perot 18%, essentially matching Perot's nationwide total. By this time their ages ranged from 50 to 67. Four years later, however, they gave Bob Dole 45% of their votes, trailing Clinton by just 2% (and with 8% for Perot), the most pro-Dole of any voting generation at that time. In 2000, when the youngest GIs were only 76, the data lumps everyone 60 or over together. That age group favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by 51-48--Gore's best generational showing. Four years later, when Bush increased his total from 48% of the popular vote to 51%, the over-60 voters were his strongest age group, giving him 54% to John Kerry's 46%. The youngest Silents were 66 in 2008, 70 in 2012 and 74 in 2016, and the older vote (increasingly composed of them) went solidly Republican all three times, 53-45 for Silent John McCain in 2008, 56-44 for Mitt Romney in 2012, and 52-45 for Donald Trump in 2016. The Silent generation, in short, has been Republican for most of its adult life, as far as we can see, with the exception of the Clinton years.
We come now to my own Boom generation, whose young Vietnam-era activists bequeathed a reputation for left wing radicalism that endures to this day. That reputation does not reflect reality.
Although as we have seen they favored Nixon in 1972, Boomers did elect Jimmy Carter President in 1976. They ranged from 33 to 16 in that year, and the 18-29 year old age group voted for Carter by 56-44--the only generation to give him a majority, in a year in which he won a bare 50% of the total. Four years later that same age group remained the most Democratic in the nation, giving both Carter and Reagan 44% of their votes and John Anderson 11%, but they were clearly swinging to the right. The Boomer vote essentially matched the national 59-41 margin for Reagan in 1984, by which time Boomers were known as yuppies. That was the start of something. In 1988 Boomers ranged in age from 28 to 45, and the 30-49 age group voted from George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, 54-46, very close to the nationwide total. Four years later, the same 30-49 age group--now composed almost entirely of Boomers--gave their own Bill Clinton just 41% of their votes, with 38% for Bush and a whopping 22% for H. Ross Perot. In 1996 the Boomers appear to have cut their Perot vote from 22% to 9%, dividing the rest about evenly between Clinton (50%) and Bob Dole (41%). That election, however--now 24 years away--marked the end of the Boomers as an asset to the Democratic Party.
The Boom generation, like the country as a whole, split its votes almost evenly between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. In 2004 the 45-59 age bracket--an almost perfect match for Boomers that year (44-61)--favored Bush over John Kerry by 51-48, his exact overall margin. In 2008 Boomers appear to have divided evenly between Barack Obama and John McCain; in 2012 they preferred Mitt Romney to Obama by about 51-47; and in 2016 they appear to have preferred Trump by about 52-44. The Boom generation is now, of course, the principal beneficiary of our nation's growing inequality, and that may be reflected in its voting.
Gen X, now middle-aged (38 to 58), has been largely invisible for most of its life, and all the attention flowing towards Millennials and Gen Z is making it even more so. That is ironic because it has had a very important voting impact in a number of elections. Gen X's affection for Ronald Reagan is well known, and they showed it in 1984, the first year that they voted in significant numbers, giving him 61% of their votes. They matched the country's Republican total in 1988 with 53% for Bush, but four years later, they gave Bush just 34%, with 22% for Ross Perot and 44% for Bill Clinton. Bob Dole evidently struck them as too old in 1996, when they themselves ranged from 25 to 45, and Clinton's 55% among Gen X was easily his best showing among any generation that year. George W. Bush won all the Perot Xer votes back in 2000, however, and led Gore by about 49-48 that year, in one of the closest elections in US history. They appear to have backed Bush solidly for re-election in 2004, 54-45. But then, now entering midlife, they moved left.
Xers ranged from 27 to 47 in 2008--and voted for their own Barack Obama, 52-45, while Boomers split evenly. They stuck with Obama 52-45 in 2012 over Romney. In 2016, however, they flipped.. CNN data for ages 40-49 shows them going for Trump 49-46 (Xers were 35-55 in 2016.) And CNN found that the 50-64 age group--a third of which are Xers--went 52-44 for Trump, almost exactly the same as the over-65 Boomers and remaining Silents.
Millennials now range in age from 23 to 37. They have been far more Democratic than Boomers and Xers at comparable stages of their lives so far. In 2004, when their voters ranged from 18-22, the 18-29 age group went 54-45 for Kerry--the only generation to do so. In 2008 a much larger Millennial group went 66-32 for Barack Obama, the biggest generational sweep, I believe, in this whole 40-year period. In 2012 they 60-37 for Obama, but in 2016, their vote also seems to have fragmented somewhat, and they went about 55-36 for Clinton against Trump, with 9% for minor parties. No new Millennials will be eligible to vote this year, which will mark the first substantial entry into politics of Gen Z voters. The Millennials have already swung slightly to the right. Given the severe rightward swing of Gen X, I am skeptical that the Millennials are going to reshape our voting patterns and our politics drastically this year. The Boomers, Xers and Millennials all began their voting lives with substantial Democratic majorities. The Boomers are now majority Republican, and the Xers have been trending that way. The Xers are now taking over most of our institutions, and it looks as though they can swing our politics either way, as well. But there will be no Xers on the presidential ballot this year.