Democrats Have a Demographic Problem in 2016

Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

A report by Daniel J. McGraw in this weekend’s Politico brings rigorous data analysis–i.e. “quick back-of-the-napkin math”–to bear on the GOP’s demographic “problem”: namely, that Republican voters tend to be old, so more of them are dying. (If you are a Democrat, this is not a problem, as death has historically posed no real impediment to voting.) Yet the real demographic problem in 2016 is not the age of Republican voters: rather, it is the age of the Democratic candidates.

As RealClearPolitics noted in a recent infographic, Hillary Clinton is older than the entire Republican field. Furthermore, with one exception (Martin O’Malley), every potential Democratic presidential candidate is older than every single GOP contender. The oldest Republican (potentially) in the race is former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is only in his mid-60s. If Democrats are hoping to bring millennials back to the polls, they have to find some way to inject youth into the race.

In fact, Republicans have already started to claw back among the younger generation. In 2014, Democrats still won the millennial vote, but only with 55 percent, as opposed to the 65 percent margin that McGraw uses in his calculations. Admittedly, that compares a midterm election with a presidential election. Still, as recently as 2000, the youth vote split 47-47 between Bush and Gore, suggesting that there really is a path back to parity for the right Republican with the right message.

McGraw’s mistake is to imagine that voting behavior is static–that demography is destiny. Certainly there is some truth to the idea that past behavior predicts future voting, but people do change their minds, at least on the margins. There is a reason the “Reagan Democrats” are remembered as an important group of voters. This year’s GOP field stands the best chance in a generation to repeat that shift–against Democrats whose ideas are even more out-of-date than their leaders.


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