Whenever I’m asked, “Who do you pay particular attention to on politics and political trends?” one invariable name I offer is that of my former National Journal colleague, Ron Brownstein, now a senior political analyst for CNN and senior editor for The Atlantic. A lot of the smartest stuff I read about politics and particularly data comes from Ron, an incredibly creative thinker who was focusing on numbers before data journalism was cool.
One recent piece of Ron’s in The Atlantic really jumped out as important to think about: “The Voters Democrats Aren’t Really Fighting Over.” While so many political reporters were falling all over themselves to cover Beto-mania, the phenomenon of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and his entry into the Democratic presidential campaign, Ron was pointing out that “it’s virtually certain that most Democratic primary voters next year will be older than 45.” Based on an analysis by CNN’s polling director Jennifer Agiesta of 27 state exit polls conducted during the 2016 primary-election season, Brownstein noted that 60 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters were 45 or over.
While no one denies that there seems to be a lot of energy among young voters these days, and that they did turn out in last year’s midterm elections at higher rates than normal (though still low compared to other age groups), this should remind us that there will be far more gray hairs voting in next year’s primaries and caucuses than fresh, energetic young faces. For all of the stories pumping up the idea of a surge of young people looking for inspirational and aspirational leadership, we could just as easily see success for former Vice President Joe Biden and other less flashy Democratic contenders, who are not predicating their nomination on the desire for charisma and the ideological fervor of the young so much as on the old-fashioned pragmatism of their parents and grandparents. This is not a prediction, only a friendly reminder of reality.
In January The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, another on the short list of people worth reading every word they write, noted, “Most recent Democratic nominating contests have been binary choices featuring a mainstream liberal versus a progressive or insurgent. In 2008, though there were others in the field, the campaign always was, fundamentally, one that pitted then-senator Obama against then-senator Hillary Clinton. That model applied to 2016 as well, a race between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) despite the presence of others.” Balz went on to point out, “That was true in 2000 as well, when then-vice president Al Gore took the establishment lane and former senator Bill Bradley ran as a progressive reformer. In 2004, though others figured into some of the early maneuvering, the contest became largely between then-senator John F. Kerry, the establishment choice, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the antiwar insurgent.” Dan concluded, “There will be nothing binary about the battle that is about to unfold, at least not for many months. The field will be bigger than it has been in many cycles, bigger likely even than 1992 or 1988.”
In the 2016 general election, the Trump base—conservatives, working-class whites, small-town and rural whites, and white evangelicals—turned out in big numbers, some motivated then because of their passion for Donald Trump, others feeling slandered by Hillary Clinton and her labeling of them as “deplorables.” They voted last year as well, partly motivated by the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, which reminded many of them why they now identify as Republicans. This made the difference in Senate races that were disproportionately being fought in red, Trump-friendly states, resulting in Republicans scoring a net gain of two Senate seats.
But in suburban America, it was a different story, with other groups more than offsetting that Trump base turnout. Last year, long before we saw the highest midterm-election turnout since 1914, there was plenty of evidence of what was to come. Democratic primary turnout that had languished in the 2014 midterm election soared and vastly eclipsed the rate of GOP primary voting. Antipathy toward President Trump seemingly triggered not just voting but an unprecedented flood of money pouring into House races, with more than three dozen GOP incumbents finding themselves outspent by their Democratic challengers. For all of the attention paid to a handful of young and extremely liberal freshman House members elected to districts where GOP candidates need not apply, it was the surge of college-educated, suburban women who turbocharged last year’s Democratic gains, with pickups of long-held GOP districts in the metropolitan areas and bedroom communities outside places like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City, as well as the four districts in Orange County, California.
Expect a broad-based and massive turnout in Democratic primaries and caucuses next year, motivated in part by the same reaction we saw last year, but also by the enormous field of Democratic presidential contenders that will feature candidates sure to be lovingly caressing every erogenous zone of the Democratic body politic—offering something for everyone.