Republicans have a problem with young voters. Democrats have a problem with young nonvoters.
That simple equation, which applies equally to minority voters, helps explain why Republicans could enjoy another strong midterm election in 2014 without solving any of the underlying demographic challenges that threaten them in the 2016 presidential race. Next year’s election could both disappoint Democrats (by frustrating their hope of recapturing the House) and mislead Republicans (by tempting them to believe they have overcome the trends that allowed Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.) It could also highlight one of the forces that is making it difficult for either party to sustain unified control over Washington, even as they struggle to reach consensus on almost anything while power is divided.
These intertwined risks and opportunities are rooted in a new twist on a familiar phenomenon. The familiar part is the tendency of young and, more recently, minority voters to turn out in smaller numbers during midterms than in presidential elections. The new twist is that changing voting patterns have vastly raised the partisan stakes in those participation trends, creating systematic challenges for Democrats in midterm elections and for the GOP in presidential years.
The midterm turnout slump for young people is long established. Looking at the seven presidential elections from 1984 to 2008, voters under 30, on average, made up a healthy 19 percent of all voters, according to exit polls. But in the midterm elections two years later, they skidded to just 13 percent of the vote, a sharp decline.
During the 1990s, the minority share of the vote didn’t consistently decline between presidential and midterm elections. But every midterm election since 2002 has featured such a falloff, with the gap widening each time. One reason Democrats were routed in 2010 is that the minority share of the vote dropped 3 full points from its 26 percent level in 2008.
Over time, minorities and the millennial generation will continue to grow as a share of the electorate. But these patterns make it virtually certain that in 2014, both groups will recede compared with 2012, when each keyed President Obama’s victory.
That means 2014 will likely feature an older and whiter electorate at a time when older whites have become the core of the GOP electoral coalition. While Obama last year won four-fifths of minorities and three-fifths of all voters under 30, Mitt Romney captured more than three-fifths of whites 45 and older. That stark generational and racial contrast has magnified the consequences in even small shifts between the voting pool in presidential and midterm contests.
So has a second trend: the decline of split-ticket voting. These turnout shifts matter more now because congressional candidates find it much tougher than before to separate themselves from attitudes about their national party. From 1982 to 1992, exit polls showed that Democratic congressional candidates on average ran 8 percentage points better among white voters and 6 points better among seniors than their presidential candidates did during the three races in that period. By contrast, from 2004 to 2010, Democratic congressional candidates almost exactly matched the party’s weak performance among white voters and seniors in the 2004 and 2008 presidential races.
For Democrats, this means that winning the House in 2014 will be a steep climb unless they can motivate more members of their presidential-year coalition to vote. Their odds look somewhat better in 2016 when the millennial generation and minorities will likely return in larger numbers, but even if Democrats win the House then, they would face the risk of losing it two years later unless they can change these turnout and allegiance patterns.
The peril for Republicans is that a good 2014 election could provide a “false positive” signal about their prospects for 2016, much as the 2010 landslide did for 2012. This week, the College Republican National Committee released a perceptive report that, while identifying opportunities, mostly documented the party’s formidable challenges with young people. When participants in one focus group were asked “what words came to mind when they heard ‘Republican Party,’ ” the authors wrote, “responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” The GOP can thrive in 2014 without solving that problem—but not in 2016. The same dynamic holds for Republicans’ minority problems. The GOP attracted 60 percent of white voters in 2010 and enjoyed a landslide. But because minority turnout increased so much just two years later, Romney lost badly while winning 59 percent of the white vote.
These patterns challenge not only the parties but the country. The falloff in minority and youth off-year voting, combined with the tendency of the modern Democratic coalition to center on big cities, provide a structural edge to Republicans in the battle to control the House. But the demographic trends enlarging the Democrats’ “coalition of the ascendant” offer them an ongoing advantage at the presidential level. The problem is that these tectonic forces are pushing toward divided government precisely as the parties are displaying ever-less ability to make it work.