Before the 2016 presidential election, many people thought Hillary Clinton’s victory was assured, in part because of the Republican Party’s “young person problem.” One reason people say this problem exists is because young adults are more racially and ethnically diverse than older adults. Another is that white young adults were supposedly more liberal on issues including gay rights, immigration and climate change.
Even though Donald Trump won the election, the narrative that young voters were turning away from the Republican Party didn’t go away. It may have even gained momentum. For example, in May the Pew Research Center documented that young Republicans were the group most likely to have switched political parties since the election.
But when we take a longer view, and when we disaggregate young Americans by race, the standing of the Republican Party with young people is not as precarious as many think.
Although Americans younger than 30 are less likely to identify as Republicans than are older people, the trend has been stable. The graph below, which draws on surveys from the American National Election Studies (ANES), shows that the gap between different age groups that emerged in the early 2000s has stabilized. There is no clear downward trend in Republican identification among young people.
If anything, the graph shows more stability since 2000 than in the preceding decades. Other analyses have also found that, among young people, party identification and self-reported ideology on the liberal-conservative scale changed little from 2008 to 2016. Young Americans are not fleeing the GOP.
Moreover, there is little evidence that younger Republicans view the Democratic Party much more favorably than older Republicans do. When asked to rate the Democratic Party on a 0-100 scale, where 100 is the most favorable rating, Republicans ages 18-39 gave the Democrats an average rating of 29.5 in 2016, while Republicans ages 65 and older gave the Democrats a rating of 21.7. Over time, Republicans of all age groups have become less favorable to the Democratic Party while remaining consistently favorable to their own party.
Second, within the Republican Party, young people are not always more consistently liberal than older people. For example, although young people are often described as racially progressive, younger Republicans do not have different views of African Americans. The graph below shows trends in Republicans’ views on a scale ranging from 0-100, where 100 is the most favorable rating. Not only is there little change over time, but the views of all age groups are very similar. Trends in evaluations of Asian Americans and Hispanics tell a similar story.
The same is true when people are asked about the size and scope of government. The ANES has asked respondents to place themselves on a seven-point scale ranging from whether government should provide fewer services to reduce spending or whether government should provide many more services, even if it means increased spending. The graph below shows that before 2000, young Republicans were more likely than older Republicans to prefer more services and spending, but the gap has since disappeared.
The same is also true on an issue like health care. The ANES has asked people to place themselves on a seven-point scale, where 1 means they prefer a government insurance plan that covers medical expenses for everyone and 7 means that all medical expenses should be paid by individuals and private insurance. Although there was a brief time in the early 2000s when young Republicans were more liberal than older Republicans, young Republicans shifted in the conservative direction after Barack Obama became president. Now, there are age gaps among Republicans on this question.
In fact, based on these and other trends I’ve examined, Republicans of all ages might be becoming more unified, rather than less unified, over time. This is hardly the portrait of a party splitting apart along generational lines.
Similar patterns characterize young whites overall. For example, young whites have not abandoned the Republican Party. Data from CIRCLE shows that in 2016, 48 percent of young white voters voted for Donald Trump, compared with 51 percent who voted for Romney in 2012, 44 percent who voted for McCain in 2008, and 55 percent who voted for George W. Bush in 2004. My own analysis of the 2012 and 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Surveys found that young whites were more similar to older whites than to young nonwhites on many issues, including their views of African Americans, affirmative action and immigration.
To be sure, young whites and young Republicans are not as conservative as older whites and Republicans on every issue. In the 2016 ANES, young whites and young Republicans were more opposed a border wall but more supportive of paid leave for new parents, legalizing marijuana and government action to fight climate change. But it is uncertain whether these cleavages will remain, given research showing that party leaders shape public opinion and that people are more likely to align their issue positions with their partisanship than they are to change their partisanship to match their issue positions.
And on other social issues, young Republicans are more conservative than older Republicans. In the 2016 ANES, 29 percent of Republicans younger than 30 said that by law, abortion should never be permitted. Nineteen percent of Republicans 30 and older said this. On gun control, 26 percent of young Republicans said the government should make it more difficult for people to buy a gun, compared with 32 percent of older Republicans.
The overall patterns do not suggest a massive Democratic or liberal surge among the young, or a significant number of liberal young Republicans on the cusp of leaving or changing the party. Moreover, it is hardly a safe bet that the racial diversity of young people will prove a boon to the Democratic Party. Young people who are classified as ethnic minorities may ultimately see themselves as part of America’s cultural majority, just as Irish and Italians of earlier eras did.
For all these reasons, it’s more than a little premature to say that the Republican Party has a young person problem.
Deborah J. Schildkraut is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Tufts University. Follower her on Twitter @debbiejsr.