Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points to an important statistic from this fall's elections: Sixty percent of voters under the age of thirty supported Democratic candidates in U.S. House elections, which is a far higher percentage than any other age group.
Young voters also skewed toward Democratic gubernatorial candidates in hotly contested states including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Florida (although they didn't differ much from the overall electorate in Maryland and Nevada). If everyone 30 and older had stayed home, Phil Angelides would be the next governor of California.
As Dionne notes, this group didn't favor Democrats a generation ago, when, in 1984, Ronald Reagan won young voters and all voters in equally large landslides. Even as recently as 2000, exit polls showed Al Gore winning 48% of young voters -- and 48% of the overall electorate.
This isn't, however, a single-election phenomenon.
John Kerry took 54% from the 18-29 set, which was the only age group he won. This shift is especially striking because conservatives have been having more kids than liberals for the past thirty years, meaning, all things being equal, you'd expect Republicans to have an advantage with today's young voters.
The question, therefore, is why young voters lately have been shifting in the Democrats' direction. A big part of the answer: social issues.
You can tell that young voters agree with the Democrats on social issues by looking at ballot measures over the past few years. In Missouri this year and in California in 2004, exit polls showed 18-29 year olds as the strongest supporters of stem cell research. They've also been the strongest opponents of restrictions on abortion in California.
However, the biggest differences between young voters and other voters appear on two issues: legalization of marijuana and gay rights. Whether it's Alaska, Montana, Oregon or Nevada, young voters consistently support marijuana legalization -- medicinal or otherwise. Gay issues, however, have played a much more central role than marijuana in political discourse over the past couple of years and, therefore, are a much more plausible explanation as to why young voters prefer Democrats.
I've found exit poll data on fifteen gay marriage votes over the past three years. In fourteen states (every one except Utah in 2004), young voters were less likely to favor a gay marriage ban than the general population. In seven of those states, the difference was at least ten percentage points. This year 59% of Wisconsinites favored a gay marriage ban, but only 40% of 18-29 voters did the same.
Of course in most of these states young voters still favored gay marriage bans, but the votes took place disproportionately in conservative states. When you consider all 50 states and the broad spectrum of gay issues, not just marriage, there's little doubt that young voters favor gay rights and, as a result, are more inclined to vote Democratic.
In contrast, young voters don't seem to differ from the overall population on fiscal issues. While the exit poll data on these topics is scant, none of the minimum wage votes this year showed a big gap between age groups.
All of this is important because, as Dionne says, "In both politics and culture, the side that thinks it's losing usually accommodates itself to the ascendant order." Today's young voters aren't ascendant yet (they were only 12% of the electorate this year) and their views could shift as they get older. But if not, you can expect politicians to follow the voters to the left on social issues.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.