The 2016 general election will go down in history for a lot of things, including the first time Millennial and Gen X voters eclipsed older voters.
Based on an analysis of Census Bureau data conducted by Pew Research, 69.6 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 51 voted in the 2016 election. Baby Boomers and older generations cast 67.9 million ballots.
More young people become eligible to vote while older people die or emigrate. While the result isn’t surprising, it marks a milepost in US demography when younger, next-generation voters become a majority, which will influence how political campaigns are focused.
Conventional wisdom is that younger voters lean Democratic. Numbers bear that out, but also is a hint that a chunk of Millennials are more conservative than Gen X or Baby Boomers were at the same age. It also may be true, as evidenced by strong support among younger voters for the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, that younger Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts.
NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben reports they may be even deeper polarization among Millennials than previous generations. If so, that could complicate any efforts to lower the volume on political discourse and exert more energy looking for common ground.
In addition to greater political polarization, Millennials overall have fewer religious ties and are better educated. They are less white and more Latino. There is also a question about their motivation to vote. Gen Xers and Millennials as age cohorts outgrew Boomers and older generations before 2016, but voter participation rates lagged behind. Pew found only half of Millennials voted in the 2016 election compared to two-thirds for older cohorts, which may have played a role in tipping the presidential election to Donald Trump.
What bears watching is how Millennials settle in as voters. Exit polls in the 2012 presidential election showed GOP challenger Mitt Romney beating President Obama by 2 percentage points among whites ages 18 to 29 with at least a four-year college degree. Four years later, Hillary Clinton beat Trump among college-educated white people by 15 percentage points. Trump scored well with young white voters who identified as evangelicals or lived in rural areas or states with large white majorities. Clinton’s large margin of votes from younger votes was canceled out when many Millennials lost interest after the presidential primaries or voted for third-party candidates.