2020 May Be the Year That Young People Finally Decide Who Wins Elections

The millennials are voting, and it won't be long before their kids are, too. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In a discussion of the film "The Irishman" and its digitally de-aged actors, Nitsuh Abebe of The New York Times writes about the dominance of the baby boomers.

Consider our nation: The president is in his 70s, as are his three leading challengers, as well as the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House. It’s estimated that nearly one-quarter of the 2020 electorate will be over the age of 65. Baby boomers remain the largest age cohort in the country, as they have been their entire lives.

In fact, this broad statement is incorrect and deceptive. There are far more young people — the millennials and Generation Z — than there are people over 65. Boomers are no longer the largest age cohort. Yes, the leading politicians are all old, but the voters aren't anymore.

voting by age
More young people than old people are voting. (Photo: Pew Research Center, Washington DC)

It has been a consistent complaint of mine that young people have to get out and vote or the boomers and seniors will keep electing conservatives who don't represent their interests. (Most recently: It's the boomers 'wot won it'). However, I concluded in that post that this wouldn't always be the case: "The USA, with its Electoral College, gerrymandered districts and voter suppression, will take a little longer to change, but it is coming and it is inevitable."

And that's exactly what appears to be happening, and more quickly than I expected. A look at the 2018 U.S. midterm elections shows that for the first time, younger generations outvoted the boomers and older generations.

Millennial turnout nearly doubled, and look who we saw voting for the first time: Generation Z, which was 4 percent of the electorate in 2018 and will be 10 percent in 2020. And though everyone lumps the Silent and Greatest generations in with the boomers, they had a huge role to play in the last election with 13 percent of the vote; that number will be a lot smaller this time.

It's still an issue that many young peoples' votes are "wasted" because they live in the booming cities on the coasts where progressive candidates run up huge majorities, and because the Senate and Electoral College give smaller, more conservative states a big advantage. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic:

Here comes Generation Z
Here comes Generation Z. (Photo: Pew Research Center)
The most famous case was in 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election despite her 2.4-million-vote margin. Clinton carried Manhattan and Brooklyn by approximately 1 million ballots — more than Donald Trump’s margins of victory in the states of Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania combined.

But young people are moving away from the big cities in California and the Northeast, and the kids are hitting voting age and don't like what they're seeing.

Migration isn’t the only reason southern metros might be shifting to the Democratic Party: Young southerners are surely pulling their region left, while older residents could be switching parties in response to Trump. Republicans have likely hurt themselves by moving further to the right to galvanize their white exurban and rural base, even as their support has thinned in the suburbs and among working-class white women.

A Pew Research Center study shows that young Republicans aren't too crazy about their party's stance on the climate emergency. When compared to older Republicans, twice as many young Republicans (but still a shockingly low 34 percent) accept that human activity contributes to climate change. It's an issue that could shift some votes.

While majorities of Republicans across all generations support expanding solar and wind power, Millennial and Gen Z adults stand out as more inclined to say developing alternative energy should be a priority for the U.S. over fossil fuel production (78% vs. 53% of those in the Baby Boomer or older generations).

Thompson of The Atlantic suggests that "without changes to the Electoral College or to the distribution of Democratic votes, the U.S. may be doomed to replay the 2016 election for several more cycles."

I'm not so sure; these Pew charts show a dramatic change, with Generation Z coming into the polling stations and the Silent Generation dropping fast. There may be more than a few surprises this November.

The included charts are used with permission from "Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X outvoted older generations in 2018 midterms," Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 29, 2019).