The Coming Liberal Wave

Photograph by Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America

One of the surprises on Election Day was turnout among young voters. Rather than decline, the youth vote went up as a proportion of the electorate, from 18 percent to 19 percent. The most recent analysis from the Pew Research Center, which looks at the composition of the youth vote, offers a few clues as to why that may have been the case. To wit, there were fewer whites among young voters than among any other age cohort. Here’s the chart:

Among those age 18 to 29, whites are 58 percent of all voters. By contrast, the proportion is much higher among those above the age of 30. When you consider the high turnout among blacks and Hispanics, it’s no wonder that youth mobilization was up—they were simply a greater share of young voters this year.

It should be said that this does not bode well for the Republican Party. One of the enduring facts of American political life is that partisan preferences tend to solidify in the mid–20s. If you voted for Barack Obama at 24, and then voted for him again at 28, you’re almost certain to vote for Democrats for the rest of your life. If the youth cohort resembled its older counterparts in demographics and ideology, this wouldn’t be so terrible—conservatives would have plenty of space to make gains. But the fact of the matter is that young voters are both browner and more liberal than those on the other side of the demographic divide.

Young voters are considerably more likely to belong to the Democratic Party (44 percent, compared to 37 percent for all other age cohorts), or identify as liberal (33 percent, compared to 22 percent). What’s more, solid majorities believe in activist government, legal abortion, same-sex marriage, and policies to reduce economic inequality.

Obviously, there is a lot that can change the direction of American politics, and a major shock to the system could throw allegiances up in the air. But assuming relative stability over the next 20 years, we’ll soon have a large cohort of people who are far more liberal than any previous generation of Americans. And if they continue to vote at current rates, they’ll have a transformative effect on future policymaking.