04/28/2009 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Vanishing Young Republicans

Yesterday's departure of Sen. Arlen Specter from the Republican Party re-opened the debate over the ideological direction of the Republican Party. Did the GOP move away from Specter, or was it Specter that left the GOP? Where do the American people fall?

My focus on this site over the last few weeks has been on young voters. And most of the news I have had for the Republican Party has been bad news, presenting a picture of a young cohort less convinced of the virtues of limited government, more supportive of gay marriage, and more inclusive of minority groups less prone to voting Republican.

In all of this, the overall ideological makeup of young voters has not yet been examined. Are young voters more liberal than older voters? Are they more likely to identify as Democrats? Recently on The View, Meghan McCain declared that 81% of young voters identified as Democrats. Though I appreciate Ms. McCain's efforts to draw attention to the GOP's troubles with young voters, the number is greatly exaggerated (and I would argue that exaggerating the problem does the cause no favors).

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But the actual numbers are not much more pleasant for the GOP. According to the EMR exit polls at the presidential level, in 2008, 45% of voters 18-29 identified as Democrats while only 27% identified as Republicans. The gap between Democratic and Republican identification has not been so wide since 1976 when only 19% of voters 18-29 identified as Republican. Yet in 1976, young voters did not flee the GOP for the Democratic party. The above figure shows that voters left the Republican Party and became independents that year; Democrats actually saw a 7 point dip among 18-29 year olds in 1976 as well.

The 2008 shift is most concerning for the Republican Party in two ways. First, it shows the highest proportion of young voters identifying as Democrats since 1972. Second, it shows the largest gap between 18-29 year old party ID and overall party ID in that same time frame. Consider 1976, when the post-Watergate voters abandoned the GOP. In that year, Democrats enjoyed a 16 point advantage over Republicans overall. The gap among 18-29 year olds was 21 points - large to be sure, but not so different from voters overall.

Yet in 2008, there was a more marked difference between young voters and the overall electorate. While Democrats held a 7 point advantage over Republicans in terms of party identification overall, that advantage jumps to 18 points among voters 18-29.

However, in terms of ideology, while young voters are quite different from voters overall, the major change did not occur this year or even this decade. In 2008, "Liberal" made a one point gain among young voters, "conservative" a one point loss. The change in young voters didn't look terribly different from the change (or lack thereof) overall, a surprising finding given the major shift in partisan identification.

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What is interesting is to take a look at 1992, when liberal overtook conservative among young voters. Conservatism took a five point hit that year, but took an 8 point decrease among young voters. Meanwhile, "liberal" picked up three points overall, but picked up seven points among young voters. Ever since 1992 re-calibrated the ideological makeup of the young electorate, the "liberal" label has outpaced "conservative".

Even odder, take a look back at the first chart of party identification. In 1992, the year the young electorate began identifying "liberal" more often than "conservative", the partisan makeup of young voters was actually more Republican than voters overall. So is ideology simply not as linked to partisan behavior? Or did the ideological shift in the early 1990's simply wait to manifest itself in 2008 as a party identification shift due to a different ideological alignment of the parties themselves? The Republican Party in the 1990's and early 2000s was able to attract young voters despite the fact that young voters were more likely to be liberal than conservative. Even as recently as 2004, Democrats only had a 2 point advantage among young voters.

Between 2004 and 2008, young voters' more liberal ideology started to match up with their partisan identification. A center-left young electorate (emphasis on center) was no longer evenly divided between the parties. As for reasons why, there are countless theories that have been offered to explain the shift. Some say young voters felt out of touch with a GOP that had nominated an older candidate (indeed, look at 1996 when the Republican Party ran the older Bob Dole against Bill Clinton). Some say the Republican Party moved to the right and became an unacceptable option for young center or center-left voters. Some may point to Obama himself as a large driver of young voters affiliating with the Democratic Party.

In order to evaluate the claim that young voters left the Republican Party because of the allure of the Obama candidacy, it is helpful to look at the 2006 election and a handful of midterms preceding it. If the Obama candidacy itself was driving young voters to become Democrats, we would expect to see young voter party identification that was similar to overall party identification, or at least we would expect to see behavior that makes sense in the context of the previous election or two. Yet while in 1998 and 2002 there were roughly equivalent numbers of young Republicans and young Democrats showing up at the polls, in 2006 there was a massive shift toward the Democrats ending in a twelve point Democrat advantage in party identification [in the electorate overall, that advantage wound up being two points, a far smaller gap].

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As it turns out, young voters began abandoning the Republican Party long before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency. Those pinning the Republican Party's poor fortunes among young voters on the Obama candidacy miss the source of the problem and certainly underestimate its severity.

I've been troubled in recent months when discussing the issue of young voters with some fellow Republicans. There seems to be a sort of conventional wisdom that we should expect young voters to trend liberal and Democratic, that the behavior of young voters in 2008 is not serious cause for concern. This stems from a belief in partisanship as a life-cycle factor, that voters start liberal and Democratic and wind up older, conservative, and Republican. But the data paint a very different picture. Take the graph of partisan identification for instance; over the last few decades, young voters have not identified with the Democratic party in substantially higher numbers than voters overall. Even conservatism had its moment among young voters in the 1980's. Yet with the end of the Reagan presidency, young voters shifted toward liberalism. This ideological shift did not play out into actual partisan identification in a meaningful way until 2006 and 2008.

Another bit of conventional wisdom I hear from my fellow Republicans about the youth vote is that they need to vote Democratic twice before they are "locked in for life", supporting the notion that there is still time to turn the tide among this generation. Unfortunately, given that the shift began in 2006 and not 2008, for many voters the GOP may simply be too late. For the rest, if the Republican Party does not take immediate action to repair its brand, this generation may exhibit similarly low levels of Republican identification for years to come.