Excellent analysis of the 2012 elections based on recent polling data and the voting history of five generations.
Pundits have long been predicting that the presidential election will be much closer and much meaner in 2012 than it was in 2008. Closer it now is. According to the RCP Poll Average, the race is now a virtual tie: Incumbent Obama now leads by a mere 1.8 percent over Romney, whereas challenger Obama led McCain by 7.6 percent exactly four years ago. It will certainly revolve around a very different array of issues—much less argument about the war on terror and GOP performance, and a lot more about the stagnating economy and Democratic performance.
In one respect, however, the next election will be a replay of the last: There will be a historically large divide in the preferences of younger voters (under 30) versus older voters (65+). In 2008, this divide (21 percentage points) was wider than in any election since the advent of age-bracketed voting data in the 1960s. The second-biggest divide (16 percentage points) was back in 1972, when nearly half of all young voters voted for McGovern while older voters went overwhelmingly for Nixon.
I’ve been tracking generational leanings in the polls pretty carefully. The Pew Research Center has issued several reports (most notably, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election) exploring this divide, and Time followed up with its own cover story (“The New Generation Gap”). More recently, Mike and Morley, Forbes, The New York Times, and many others have also weighed in.
Bottom line: Every generation is today a bit more favorable toward Obama than they were in 2010 and a good deal less favorable than in 2008. The partisan gap between the Democrat-leaning young and the Republican-leaning old, however, remains as strong as ever—at around 20 percent.
Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats. This fall, the media focus may shift. The big story could be how and why today’s angry, aging Silent Generation put the Republicans over the top. The relevant parallel here is 1972, when Nixon was able to split the young Boomer vote with McGovern—and then crush McGovern with all voters over age 30. (Nixon’s popular margin in 1972, 23.2 percent of the electorate, is the fourth largest in U.S. history.) Romney, of course, cannot hope for Nixon’s margin. But the basic logic still stands. Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote; he just has to contain youth losses enough so that his huge advantage among older voters puts him ahead.
The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, each with a different collective life story shaped by its own location in history. Let’s take a look at how each of these stories is likely to determine the outcome. (Throughout, I will borrow shamelessly from Pew’s wonderful cohort-tracking research and graphics.)