The first Democratic presidential debates are on June 26 and 27 (with ten per night, it’s more like an exhibit), and President Trump launches his reelection bid on June 18. I’m confident in one prediction about the 2020 presidential race: predictions made now will likely be wrong. That was true of the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 midterm elections, and will be even more true for the 2020 presidential elections. Why? A new dynamic among voters and candidates has exponentially increased uncertainty. There are five generations of eligible voters and representatives of four generational cohorts who aspire to be president.
Percentages of Potential Eligible Voters by Generation
Let’s start with the approximate percentages of eligible voters by generations:
- 10% – Gen Z (ages 7 to 22)
- 25% – Millennials (ages 23 to 38)
- 25% – Gen X (ages 39 to 55)
- 30% – Boomers (ages 56 to 73)
- 10% – Silent/greatest generations (ages 74+)
Remember, these are percentages of eligible voters. What do we know about likely voter turnout? Older people vote in greater numbers. For example, in 2016 Boomers and those older constituted 43% of eligible voters but cast 49% of the votes (Pew Research Center). But in the 2018 midterm elections, younger voters (Gen Zers, Millennials, and Gen Xers – 51%) edged out older voters. To summarize:
- 40% of eligible voters are older (Boomers, Silent, Greatest Generations)
- 35% of eligible voters are younger (Millennials, Gen Z)
- 25% of eligible voters are early middle-aged (Gen X). The number and percentage of Gen X voters have significantly increased: “…for the first time they had more than 30 million votes in a midterm election. Their turnout rate also increased, from 39% in 2014 to 55% four years later.”
From a generational perspective, Gen Xers may be the “swing vote” who determine election results. But, analyzing a candidate’s electability only based on generational demographics is risky. Other factors including race, ethnicity, gender, the weather on election day, wait times for voting, accessibility and hours of polling stations make accurate predictions nearly impossible at this stage.
It’s too soon to know if Donald Trump, a Boomer, will be the only Republican contender. But unless someone over age 85 declares interest in running as a Republican, my observations apply to candidates of both parties. Of the twenty Democrats who will be in the first presidential “debates,” the 7 Gen Xers and10 Boomers are bookended by 2 Millennials and 2 Silent Generation members. Looking at a visual representation of candidates, you can see an ascension of younger Democrats and attrition of older ones. But:
- Age and generation aren’t always accurate barometers for assuming how “conservative” or “progressive” candidates are. Some examples:
- Is Joe Biden’s recent indecision about federal funding for abortions an expression of a personal religious dilemma, or a political calculation to capture more conservative Democratic votes?
- Another issue that isn’t generation-specific is climate change. Younger and older Democratic contenders have made climate change centerpieces of their campaigns. (It isn’t surprising most Boomer candidates emphasize climate change. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, a time of Boomer environmental activism.)
Generational differences among eligible voters and candidates will be more pronounced than in any prior election, but it’s unclear if age will be the most decisive factor.
Voter Values and Concerns
Among voters, some issues more clearly reflect generational differences. Boomers had a level playing field, but they scorched it for future generations and left them holding an ecological, political, and economic mess. Many Boomers could count on having only one or two jobs for life, a defined benefit pension plan, affordable health care for them and their families, and social security. A home, a car, marriage, children, – many Boomers climbed a vertical ladder leading to the “American dream.” While minorities were often prevented from getting their feet on the first rung of this ladder, a large swath of the Boomer population could realize these achievements with a high school degree. A college degree put Boomers on an even faster track to success.
Contrast the expectations of Boomers with the realities of Millennials who:
- are burdened with student debt
- have job insecurity because artificial intelligence and machine learning are making employees increasingly less relevant
- experience the constant pressure of reinventing themselves in a disruptive workplace that has no end in sight
- must weigh whether marriage and children are feasible and desirable
- doubt if they will be able to afford a home.
These realities explain why younger voters tend to favor greater government involvement. It’s their only hope for countering the more devastating effects of unchecked market-driven capitalism. These hard facts also explain their skepticism about entrusting their future to Boomers. They’ll be spending much more time in the future than Boomers, the first generation to leave the world in a worse state for those who are younger.
No Bet Yet
If you have time to waste, money to burn, or enjoy the premature prognostications of political pundits, you can start to forecast which candidates are likely to win their respective parties’ approval. (Before you do, here’s another potential wildcard: will candidates who don’t receive their respective party nominations run as independents?) In the meantime, I’m going to follow the impact of generational values and interests on the electoral landscape. Stay tuned!