According to a Gallup poll released on Thursday, demographic shifts in age may favor Republicans over time.
So-called Traditionalists—those born between 1900 and 1945—skew heavily conservative, with 48 percent identifying as such, another 33 percent identifying as moderate, and just 17 percent identifying as liberal.
Baby Boomers are now trending heavily Republican as well. Gallup reports that 44 percent of Baby Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—call themselves conservative, as opposed to 21 percent who call themselves liberal. That’s a massive shift, given the Baby Boomers’ orientation as leftists during the 1960s and 1970s.
Conservatives outnumber liberals by a margin of 35 percent to 23 percent among Generation Xers (1965-1979) as well. Only among Millennials (1980-1996) do liberals outnumber conservatives, and even there, the margin is a slim 30 percent to 28 percent.
The question for conservatives, therefore, is simple: are older Americans more likely to be conservative because they were always more conservative, or do Americans become more conservative based on circumstance? The answer seems to be a bit of both.
Traditionalists carried a 29 point gap in favor of conservatives in 1994; in 2014, that gap was 31 points. Baby Boomers carried a 19 point gap for conservatives in 1994, and a 23 point gap for conservatives in 2014. For Generation Xers, the gap widened and narrowed considerably over time, from 9 points in 1994 to 18 points in 2004, back down to 12 points in 2014. And among Millennials, the volatility has been nearly as extreme, from a 5 point advantage for conservatives in 2003 to a two-point disadvantage for conservatives in 2014.
So voters do move over time, depending on candidates and issues. But they operate within a given range. The real problem for conservatives lies in the dramatic increase in identification as liberal—the label seems to have lost its sting for the young. Those who are identifying as liberal among the older generations seem to be doing so from the moderate group. As Gallup states:
Although it is not possible to know from these data if ideological preferences persist throughout people’s lifetimes, each major generation’s preferences have been largely stable over the past two decades. If these trends largely persist, there should be a continued increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal and decrease in the percentage identifying as conservative in the future, unless the generation born after 2000 emerges as more conservative than liberal.
The old cliché, therefore, that conservatives are just liberals who were mugged in their youth, seems to belie the facts. Liberals in youth are liberals as they age. If Republicans continue to cater only to those at the upper end of the age spectrum, they are operating on false ground. If Republicans think they can appeal to young people by abandoning their core issues, they are just as mistaken—the key isn’t in appealing to moderates, but in shifting moderates toward conservatism.