During some twenty years on a university faculty, I learned to appreciate the vast differences in the reliability of research, especially survey research. It isn’t simply the “garbage” studies that are promoted by partisans of one sort or another–even serious efforts at determining attitudes and beliefs of particular populations run into problems with the way in which questions are posed and the selection of representative respondents, among other minefields.
Carefully crafted, reliable surveys require skilled researchers (they’re also very expensive), so we need to look carefully at the source of data coming from survey researchers. One of the most skilled, reliable and reputable of such sources is Pew Research–which is why I was so heartened by a recent study Pew published, showing that the electorate is shifting — and not in the Republican Party’s favor.
As The Week reported:
A new deep dive into the 2020 electorate by Pew Research contains mostly bad news for Republicans, whose approaching demographic doom is less racial than it is generational. While it shouldn’t be news to anyone at this point that young voters are a solidly blue voting bloc, the more worrisome developments for the GOP are the unexpectedly elderly nature of the party’s coalition and the unyielding Democratic lean of younger voters as they age. If Pew’s numbers are to be believed, the only solidly Republican age demographic last year was 75 and over, meaning that every time the sun comes up, the GOP’s struggle to win a majority of American voters gets harder.
Pew’s in-depth study uses validated voter files – matching panelists to a registration database confirming whether or not they turned out – to offer a different, and possibly more accurate, view of the electorate than the exit polls taken on Election Day. Often this new data can challenge narratives that set in stubbornly and immediately after the votes are counted – in 2016, for example, Pew’s research found that Donald Trump won white women by a considerably smaller margin than Election Day surveys indicated, upending one prevailing story about who was most responsible for Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss.
Some of the ways in which Pew’s findings differed from the arguably less-precise findings of exit polls included the extent of Trump’s inroads with Latino and Black voters (he did somewhat better with Latinos and worse with Blacks than previously reported) and the fact that he did not win married men by 11 points–in fact, Pew found that married men went for Biden by 5.
But it was the age numbers that I found most hopeful. Exit polls had shown Biden winning 18- to 29-year-olds by 24 points, 60-36; Pew found it at a similar, albeit slightly smaller 58-38. Exit polls also showed Trump with just a 52-47 edge among voters over 65, and Pew’s numbers were almost identical – 52-48 for Trump over Biden.
Pew also broke the survey down into not just age groups but generational cohorts. And it’s here where you’ll find the most terrifying information for the GOP. According to Pew, Trump won a decisive majority only with members of the “Silent Generation,” those born between 1928 and 1945 (and the extremely tiny number of living people older than that). Trump dominated that cohort by 16 points, 58-42. That means that the only reliably Republican voter bloc will shrink considerably between now and 2024, and that 65- to 74-year-olds must have been a much more blue-leaning group in 2020 to produce Trump’s comparatively narrow 4-point margin with all over-65s.
As the article notes, you don’t need a degree in actuarial science to know that 65- to 74-year-olds will be around considerably longer than 75- to 102-year-olds.
Perhaps even worse for former President Trump and his acolytes, the Pew data showed little erosion in the millennial preference for Democrats over Republicans. Fifty-six percent of millennials voted for Clinton in 2016, and 58 percent voted for Biden in 2020. Remember, the first millennials voted in 2002, and as a group they simply have not budged. “Elder millennials” are turning 40 this year and they don’t love the Republican Party any more than they did when George W. Bush was lighting several trillion dollars on fire prosecuting a pointless war in Iraq. And that’s terrible news for the GOP’s hopes of ever becoming a majority party again, because if they keep losing the youngest voters by double digits election after election, they need a significant number of them to get more conservative as they age just to hold current margins in place.
This is all good news–in the long run. Even in the medium run.
The task for those of us who are terrified by the GOP’s current efforts to win elections by cheating–gerrymandering, vote suppression, placing unethical partisans in positions to oversee elections, etc.–is to work our fannies off to keep them from destroying democracy in the short run.