Saturday, March 06, 2010

Tracking political orientation by age group over time

Last week, NPR ran a story on a Pew Research report on the millennial generation, highlighting the age group's political liberalism. There is little in the report that is surprising, though I found this remark by the president of Pew Research to be prognostic value:

Mr. KOHUT: Many people, not just whites, I think only 60 percent of this generation is white. They have a positive view of government - a more positive view of government, at least, than other generations. And they even supported higher rates, relatively higher rates, such things as affirmative action with preferential treatment for minorities.
Looking down the road, when the up-and-coming generation is 40% white, what will the support-preferential-treatment-for-minorities numbers look like? Will the term "minority" continue to be translated as "non-white", or will it fall out of use as everyone becomes a statistical minority based on their racial compositions?

I wondered more generally whether or not the contemporary political liberalism of those under age 30 is an exception in recent history or a continuation of past trends. Over the last several decades, have young adults been as liberal relative to other age groups as they are today, or are those designated by demographers as millennials especially leftist in their outlooks?

Turning to the GSS, I used Pew's generational conventions for age groupings. Millenials are 18-29, Xers 30-44, baby boomers 45-63, and silents 64-81. Because I was looking back in time, the age groupings do not correspond to static generational labels, of course--the intention is to see if the political orientations of young people have become especially liberal in the last few years. Higher values indicate political conservatism and lower values indicate political liberalism, with 4 representing perfect moderation. The graph shows the mean for people in each age grouping by year of survey.

Still presumably riding the wave of the 60s, young adults tended to describe themselves as considerably more liberal than older generations did through the 70s, at which point the average response became moderate. Since the turn of the millennium, it looks as though those under 30 have remained noticeably more liberal than those over 30 (although only by about one-fourth of a standard deviation). So the Pew report appears to be capturing something not entirely predictable.

As time goes on, the under 30 cohort continues to become less and less European by ancestry. Looking only at whites, there does not appear to have been any detectable shifting over the last three decades, the apparent noise in 1998 and 2002 notwithstanding.

I suspect much of the liberal skew of young adults today stems in large part from the fact that they are, as a group, less white than older generations are. Neither whites nor non-whites are becoming more liberal or conservative than before. Instead, non-whites are more liberal than whites are, and they're coming to represent a growing percentage of the young adult aggregate.


Jeff Lonsdale said...

The minority effect is pretty important. I did some back of the envelope calculations on the demographic effect and find that Republicans have to fight a negative drift of about 0.1% to 0.2% of the vote each year (more detail at the link).

The Undiscovered Jew said...

Much of the demographic shift is being caused by illegal immigrants, as distinct from legal immigrants.

Asian immigrants and black Americans don't have very high birthrates.

The demographic shift in under 20's is mostly attributable to illegal Hispanics who have been adding 400,000 to 500,000 babies a year over the past 20 years or so.

If there had been no illegal immigration, the under 5 demographic would still be about 60-67% white even with no change in legal immigration because legal immigrants and African Americans don't have very high birth rates (second generation Asian Americans have TFRs of about 1.4 in California).

Deporting all illegal immigrants would help a great deal even with no near term end to legal immigration.

For example, if you look at the Arizona Health Department statistics, for the first time in a few years, a plurality (~43%) of births in Arizona were to white mothers for the year ending 2009.

The Arizona Hispanic birth rate has taken a big hit over the past two years because the state has been working to deter illegal immigrants and because of the recession.

Re: Pew poll,

Could you also check the GSS to see if young whites become more Republican voting (as distinct from political ideology) over time?

The same Pew poll indicated Generation X is more Republican than they were in the 1990's now that they are older even though Gen X is to be more socially liberal in the Pew poll compared to older generations.

Audacious Epigone said...


That meshes with what we see here. Unfortunately, in addition to being a 'third rail' politically, there is also the frog in the boiler problem.


Sure. I wonder if demographic trends push more whites into the Republican ranks if those whites who formerly voted Democratic or voted by candidate will consider themselves moderate or even liberal and also Republican or if the move will be more towards conservative independent. I suspect the former, which is what the Pew poll seems to suggest.

Obsidian said...

But isn't this just a case of young people being...young? Regardless of their color? I mean after all, being young tends to make one more Liberal. There's a reason that, on balance, the Dems tend to attract more younger - and Female, I might - voters, than does the GOP.



The Undiscovered Jew said...

I wonder if demographic trends push more whites into the Republican ranks if those whites who formerly voted Democratic or voted by candidate will consider themselves moderate

Whites have been becoming more and more Republican since the 1960's as the Democrats have moved steadily away from being the blue collar, pro-Great Wave white immigrant, pro-Union, anti-trade, pro-national defense party of FDR, Truman, and JFK and into the post-modern, multicultural, enviro-wacko, loony toon left party of today.

LBJ was the last Democrat president to win a strong majority of the white vote.

Bill Clinton managed to stop the Democrat hemorrhaging of white voters to the GOP because he was ok on the economy and he didn't pursue any major social engineering policies after Hillarycare went down.

In particular, Clinton was able to attract white suburban moderates who normally voted Republican (such as the suburbs of Chicago and Philadelphia which had historically been Republican strongholds prior to the mid 1990's) because Clinton's decent economic management made suburbanites feel it was "safe" to vote Democrat without worrying about huge tax increases.

Nowadays, I am not sure a centrist Democrat like Clinton could get the Democrat nomination.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me totally driven by public ed. If the kids had all gone to fundie christian schools and watched '50's era TV, gee, I wonder what their politics would be.

Sunburner said...

The freeloader effect applies to black and hispanic young people slightly more than white youth. But most youth are rebelling somewhat against authority. Now that "authority" is an anti-American third world presidency, it is difficult to know how non freeloaders will turn.

Clinton was not a centrist at all. He was whatever the polls told him to be.

Being forced to deal with the Gingrich congress compelled Clinton into a position where some people who didn't know better might consider him "centrist."

Audacious Epigone said...


I'm inclined to think the same way as you do, that Pew (more so those reporting on the Pew study, really) is playing up the putative uniqueness of the current crop of adults under 30 yo (the millennials). The GSS data aren't very conclusive, but to the extent that there is a greater political gap between those under 30 and those over 30 today than in the 80s and 90s, I'm speculating in the post that the increase in the non-white population might go some ways in explaining it.

Superdestroyer said...

Another reason for 20 something liberal view is based upon where they live. If a 20 something is interested in politics and lives in a city that produces good jobs for 20 somethings, then they are living in deep blue areas. There is not good career path for 20-something conservative but there are lots of good career paths for 20-something liberals.

Anonymous said...

"There is not good career path for 20-something conservative but there are lots of good career paths for 20-something liberals."

Could you explain this a little more? I am not sure I follow. Could you give a few examples?

Jay Fink said...

I am an older Gen X. I can clearly remember in the 1980s my peers weren't politically liberal. Liberalism was out and actually considered the politics of older people, the hippie generation. The TV show Family Ties that featured conservative teens with liberal hippie parents seemed realistic at the time. Many young people loved Ronald Reagan, others were apathetic non-voters. I was liberal at the time and felt very much alone.I imagine today there is tremendous peer pressure for young people to be liberal Democrats..I can tell you without a doubt that pressure did not exist in the 80s.

I dated a 21 year old Hispanic girl in 2000. She was a liberal who voted for Gore. Her main issue was pro-abortion (which she had a couple of). I have long lost touch with her. I did a search on her and found her all over political message boards. Was I ever shocked to learn that she has transformed into an ultra conservative. She married a military man and became an anti-abortion born again Christian. She voted Independent American in 2008 because she thought that McCain was too liberal. I know she's an outlier, especally being Hispanic.but she gives me hope that many of today's liberal youth will eventually become conservative...I made the same journey myself.

Audacious Epigone said...


Clarify what you'd like me to look at if you will. The GSS doesn't allow for a time series, although we could look at a generational cohort over time (those aged 18-28 in 1980, 20-30 in 1982, 22-32 in 1984, etc), or we could look at partisan identification by age group over time (18-28 yos in 1980 compared to 18-28 yos in 1982, 1984, etc).

The Undiscovered Jew said...

Clarify what you'd like me to look at if you will.

Sorry for the delayed response.

I wanted to know if young white people become more Republican or Democrat voting (as compared to describing themselves as conservative or liberal) as time goes on.

Even WWII generation Americans are more liberal than they were when they were in their 20's - 40's in terms of ideology (eg gay rights, abortion, etc), but the WWII Americans have become more Republican despite becoming more liberal.

You could compare Gen X and the Boomers to Gen Y to see if Gen X is more Republican or Democrat than they were in in the 90's (Clinton got over 53% of the 18-29 year old vote with Perot and Dole splitting the rest*)

But many of those Gen Xers voted for Bush over Kerry in 2004 when they hit their early 30's while Kerry won 18 to 29 year olds by a 54 to 45% margin (this time, without a third party candidate like Perot in 1992 and 1996 splitting the vote three ways) **

Gen Xers didn't go for Obama by a large margin in 2008, only a 52% to 46% victory in a terrible year for Republicans***

So it looks like young voters become more GOP as time passes, regardless of whether of what ideological label they choose.