For GOP, generation gap looms

With a little more than five weeks to Election Day, polls still show Georgia Democrats such as Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter outperforming early expectations. That can’t be welcome news for Republicans, but if you look a little deeper into the polling data, the news gets even more dire.

For example, a SurveyUSA poll released last week put the margin in both the governor’s race and U.S. Senate race at one percentage point, much too close to call. But when you break the poll results down by age, something startling reveals itself.

In the Senate race between Nunn and David Perdue, Perdue enjoys an 11-point margin among voters 50 and older. But among voters 49 and younger, Nunn has a nine-point advantage. That’s a pretty stark gap, and polling in the race between Carter and Gov. Nathan Deal shows the same chasm.

If you’re a GOP strategist in this state, those numbers have to alarm you, particularly because other polls are reporting the same phenomenon. For example, a poll conducted earlier this month for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked voters whether they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative:

  • Among likely Georgia voters aged 18-39, 40 percent considered themselves liberal; just 28 percent considered themselves conservative.
  • Among their grandparents' generation, the opposite was true. Sixty percent of those 65 and older said they were conservative; just 16 percent were liberal.

And when voters were asked which party they belonged to or leaned toward, the generation gap was again apparent:

  • Among those 18 to 39, 57 percent identified with Democrats; just 32 percent identified with Republicans.
  • Among those 65 and older, 31 percent identified with Democrats; 59 percent identified with Republicans.

Democrats, in other words, enjoy a 25-point advantage among Georgia voters 39 and younger, and that’s large even by national standards. (In 2012, Obama won the under-30 vote by 23 points.) And while folk wisdom may hold that people turn more conservative as they age, decades of research tell us that isn’t true. As one study published in 2002 puts it, “individuals form partisan attachments early in adulthood and … these political identities, much like religious identities, tend to persist or change only slowly over time.”

Voters tracked by the Pew Research Center confirm that finding. For example, Republicans held the advantage among young voters back in the Reagan years, largely because Ronald Reagan was viewed as a successful president. The “Reagan youth” have continued to vote Republican ever since. In contrast, young people who came of age during the Clinton years tended to vote Democratic initially and still do so today.

Now, if you were a marketing executive for a brand that was popular among seniors but unpopular among the young, you’d worry about the future and look for ways to reposition your product. But in this case, Republicans are trapped. They have become so reliant on older voters that they don’t dare to “rebrand” by, say, supporting the right of gay people to get married or allowing legalization of undocumented immigrants.

So their problems among young voters get worse as their senior citizen base gets smaller.

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