The GOP Can Rage Against the Dying of the Light

At Politico, Daniel McGraw has an interesting article on how “The GOP Is Dying Off. Literally”:

It turns out that one of the Grand Old Party’s biggest -- and least discussed -- challenges going into 2016 is lying in plain sight, written right into the party’s own nickname. The Republican Party voter is old -- and getting older, and as the adage goes, there are two certainties in life: Death and taxes. Right now, both are enemies of the GOP and they might want to worry more about the former than the latter.

There’s been much written about how millennials are becoming a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, but there’s been much less attention paid to one of the biggest get-out-the-vote challenges for the Republican Party heading into the next presidential election: Hundreds of thousands of their traditional core supporters won’t be able to turn out to vote at all.

The party’s core is dying off by the day.

Since the average Republican is significantly older than the average Democrat, far more Republicans than Democrats have died since the 2012 elections. To make matters worse, the GOP is attracting fewer first-time voters. Unless the party is able to make inroads with new voters, or discover a fountain of youth, the GOP’s slow demographic slide will continue election to election.

This issue of the GOP becoming the party of old people, and losing the youth vote, has been a recurring one for at least the past few decades. And yet they still manage to win the odd election or two.

The youth bloc (18-29 year olds) has consistently been a significantly larger proportion of those who vote than the 60+/65+ year old group since 1976. The size of the youth bloc hasn’t changed much over the past several elections, and neither has the size of the 65+ voting cohort. In the 2000 election, 18-29 year olds made up 17 percent of those who voted. By 2012, this was 19 percent, an increase of 2 percent. The size of the 65+ voting group also increased by 2 percent over this period, from 14 to 16 percent. Looking back even further, since the early 1990s the relative size of the 65+ bloc has increased while that of the youth bloc has decreased.

Stretching back to the 1976 election between Carter and Ford, youth made up 32 percent of voters, while the 60+ cohort was just 14 percent.

The share of the older bloc voting for the GOP also hasn’t changed much over time -- there has been some cycling between elections, but no real trend. In 1984, Reagan captured 64 percent of the 65+ group’s vote. This dropped to just 39 and 44 percent during the 1992 and 1996 elections, and has since steadily rebounded back up to 56 percent for the 2012 election. The GOP are essentially back where they started in the late 1970s and early 1980s with their share of the older voters.

The youth vote is fickle. It was attracted to Ford, Reagan, and Bush 41’s first term, then left the party during the Clinton terms, then returned during Bush 43’s time in office, and once again walked away in 2008 and 2012. Predicting where this bloc will vote in future looks to be a difficult task.

Voters tend to become more conservative as they age, and this is clearly evident in the data above. If they didn’t, the share of the older vote going to the Republican candidate would have consistently declined over time. But it hasn’t -- which is reason enough for the GOP not to panic. The median age of the U.S. is still increasing.

As a recent U.S. Census Bureau study notes, “[b]etween 2012 and 2050, the United States will experience considerable growth in its older population. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012 ... By 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents are projected to be aged 65 and over, compared with 13 percent in 2010 and 9.8 percent in 1970.”

But perhaps these results offer the most hope for the GOP’s future:

While the population in all age groups is projected to increase between 2012 and 2050, the distribution of the population by age is projected to shift. The population aged 65 and over is projected to increase between 2012 and 2050, accounting for over 20 percent of the total population by 2050 in all three projection series. In contrast, the share of the population in the working ages (18 to 44 years and 45 to 64 years) is projected to decrease in all three series, as is the share of the population in the child ages (0 to 17 years).

If individuals generally become more conservative and attracted to the Republican Party as they age, and if the percentage of the U.S. population over 65 is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades, why does the GOP have to worry and scramble hysterically for the youth vote? Actually, it seems as though the demographic table is tilted in favor of the GOP, not against.

The GOP has won elections without winning the youth vote, but it has not won the popular vote without also winning over the older demographic. In 2000, Bush and Gore effectively tied for the 18-29 year old vote, but in doing so, Bush lost the 65+ vote to Gore (47 to 51 percent) and lost the popular vote. Move forward to 2004, where Bush sacrificed the youth vote to Kerry by a substantial margin, but retook the 65+ vote, and clearly won the popular vote.

Beware advice telling conservative parties to target the youth vote by adopting policies that may alienate their core older constituencies. Elections can be lost this way.