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The race is on-- future elections will depend on the party that finishes first among these groups...
The Republican field representing the 2024 presidential hopefuls is locked in a race for the future. If there was an elephant in the room that night in Milwaukee, he might as well have been fronted by a slew of GOP dinosaurs. The Trump wing of the party has followed its leader’s formula that worked so well in 2016 and not so well since. The Trump victory in 2016 was marked by a notable avoidance of real issues. Hillary was laser-focused on issues and was a proponent of the traditional campaign defining issues that resonated among voters and shaping them to the candidates’ advantage. Trump chose grievance over issues and rode them to victory on a wave of older white voters' anger stoked presumably by their emotional response to the new American demographics that were poised to bend the issues to their own concerns for the future. In 2020, Biden’s victory was fueled by a large coalition of voters a majority of whom were non-white:
White voters account for a diminishing portion of the vote
Whites accounted for 85% in 1996, 69% in 2020
Meanwhile, white voters make up the vast majority of Republican voters and “leaners” (81%) compared to Democratic voters (59%)
The older core supporting GOP was comfortable with the issues that animated the “Reagan Revolution” which was really a snap back to issues the party lost to the courts and the rise of American hegemony in the world after World War II. The Baby Boomers who were in ascendance were interested in fighting inflation, gasoline prices, cold war politics, and social issues that would impact their paychecks. Democrats at the time were slow to recognize the challenges brought on by an end to the Vietnam War, its returning veterans greeted by a mixed reaction, unlike their fathers’ glorious return after their war. By 2016, Baby Boomers led all voters in the percentage of votes cast and were determinant in choosing Donald Trump:
One large slice of the population that often does not exercise its right to vote is young Americans. Less than half — just 43.4% — of eligible Americans under 30 voted in the 2016 presidential election.2 This was much less than the 71.4% of over-60s who voted.
The wave of voters has changed, however, as the population has aged and the GOP has found itself in an issues desert it had created for itself under Trump. Add to this reality, Republicans after Reagan have won the popular vote only once, George W. in 2004. Hillary Clinton, for example, earned almost 2.9 million votes more than Trump, the largest popular vote margin of any losing presidential candidate in U.S. history.
Despite the trends that point to the GOP falling behind in national appeal, the MAGA core has held onto the nominating process in the party not because their views are dominant, but because younger voters have been driven from their ranks. For younger voters, issues like gun control and abortion matter, and the Democratic Party positions are the ones they are most attracted to. This phenomenon was evident in 2018 and 2020 as young millennials and the ‘letter-gens’ have taken to the polling booths in greater numbers. Issues such as abortion, gay rights, climate change, and gun legislation— all issues that older Republicans had taken sides against in the past— resonate differently among the more diverse and educated voters who have replaced the baby boomer and retired voters.
It was interesting to listen to Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia respond to his legislature who were demanding that he call a special session for the purpose of ousting Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis. Kemp pushed back, and his reasoning may give us insight on what some non-MAGA Republicans are planning:
“The bottom line is that in the state of Georgia as long as I’m governor, we’re going to follow the law and the Constitution, regardless of who it helps and harms politically.
Over the last few years, some inside and outside of this building may have forgotten that. But I can assure you that I have not.”
In Georgia, we will not be engaging in political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment. We will do what is right. We will uphold our oath to public service. And it is my belief that our state will be better off for it.”
— Gov. Brian Kemp, August 30, 2023
Kemp is right on the issue— as he is on the Trump interference in Georgia election— but his defense of a popular and effective Black officeholder is a stark reflection of Kemp’s understanding of the electorate that returned him to office in 2022 over another very popular Black candidate. His stance is also notable as a contrast to the treatment of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson by a white Tennessee House Speaker and legislature. My guess is that Kemp may be planning a presidential run in 2028 or seek to unseat one of Georgia’s two Democratic senators. He is also reading polls that give him a leg up among his GOP rivals in the future.
What seems apparent is that voter alliances between the parties have been changing along the shifting tectonic plates of age and diversity. The race is now on to see which party can win the future with Democrats holding a substantial lead among so-called issue voters. The January 6 power grab has been a long time coming and represents a last-gasp effort among the old-line Republicans to retain power while retaining the widely unpopular positions on issues that now animate the new wave of voters who are younger, better educated, and come to the ballot box with a far more sophisticated set of needs. The old-line issues of bread and butter, war and peace, are still important, yet the more nuanced issues of expanding rights and privileges once held close to the vest by pols in both parties are now ascendant because of the unrelenting and irresistible change in face of the American public. Building a political majority based on race and status is slowly but inexorably dying. The party that recognizes that inevitability and responds will ultimately win the future— at least in the short term.
In the long term, political parties may themselves become quaint vestiges of a time when voters allowed their leaders to define issues and bend them to serve their will. Consider the summary conclusion of a recent Gallup poll and its implications for the future:
Younger generations of U.S. adults are much more likely than older generations to identify as independents and, to this point, Generation X and millennials have become no less likely to do so as they have gotten older, in contrast to the generations that preceded them.
The youngest adults, those in Generation Z, are as likely as millennials to think of themselves as independents. In fact, like millennials, more describe themselves this way than identify with either political party.
These population trends appear at odds with the political parties' actions, as they have seemingly tried to appeal more to their own bases than to the larger group of unaffiliated voters. This disconnect may explain low levels of trust in government and poor views of both parties in general.
Who wins the race? At the moment both parties have misread the trends. The Republicans who still believe old-line political tricks can keep them in power despite the unpopularity of their policies are seeking only short-term goals. The Trump trials will go a long way in determining their fate. As for Democrats, the Biden agenda speaks to many of the issues of younger, more independent voters. Biden’s outreach to students with college debt is particularly notable because it gives a nod to his own progressive wing and singles out those voters— young, ‘letter gens’ with debt and education— that are becoming more dominant at the polls. One caveat, however, is that both parties continue to court voters within their own base while the largest party in the U.S. by far are Independent voters who identify as 44% of the voters. Gallup indicates that in 2022 those identifying as Democrats (27%) or Republicans (30%), will determine who wins future elections. While Independents are far more likely to vote Democratic, their concerns cannot be taken for granted. The wings of the Democratic party which often squabble over which policies are better cannot afford to allow their inner battles to drive off Independents. Their advantage at the moment is that the GOP has no wings, and their inner battles are being played out in the courts.