The Disunited States of America

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- The Republican Party scored a landmark victory on Tuesday night. The GOP didn’t just win the safe bets in South Dakota and the mildly competitive races in Kentucky, Kansas, and Georgia. It triumphed in North Carolina, Colorado, and Arkansas—where conservative candidates knocked out Democratic incumbents—and Iowa, where it won an open seat previously held by veteran Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Republicans saved embattled governors from defeat and scored upset gubernatorial wins in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois. And, to finish the hat trick, House Republicans are on track to win their largest majority since 1928.

But before we declare the end of the Obama era, we shouldn’t lose sight of something else, even if it runs afoul of the headlines of the past week: Nationally, the Republican Party isn’t popular. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the GOP, compared with 47 percent who feel the same for the Democratic Party. The people who just elected a Republican majority in the Senate are a narrow, unrepresentative slice of voting-age Americans. They’re older, whiter, wealthier, and much more conservative than the public at large. Put another way, the midterm electorate that chose this Republican Congress is itself a Republican electorate drawn from a subset of Republican voters.

And two years from now, when we gather to choose the next president, it’s just as likely we’ll have a Democratic electorate—voters who are younger, less affluent, and more diverse—choosing a Democratic president.

In other words, the 2014 to 2016 cycle will be a rough copy of the 2010 to 2012 cycle. This is more than a quirk of American elections. It represents a major shift in partisan cycles that, in turn, has serious consequences for our ability to govern the country and respond to the pressing problems of the day. With this seesaw of Democratic presidents and GOP congresses, we may be facing more than gridlock. We may be on the cusp of a generation of political stagnation that will be hardwired into our democracy by our country’s shifting demographics and the unwillingness of the Republican Party to compromise with those with whom they disagree.

The Demographic Divide

Midterms have always been bad for the president’s party, but rarely were they wave elections—or near waves—of the kind we saw this year and in 2010. Instead, they were modest shifts in one direction or the other. In 1986, running at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term, Democrats won a net five seats in the House of Representatives andeight in the Senate. In 1990, running against President George H. W. Bush, Democrats won a net seven seats in the House and one in the Senate. In other words, until very recently, Democrats didn’t always fare poorly in midterm elections.

The generational divide in partisanship, for instance, didn’t exist 25 years ago, or at least, not in the same way. Take the 1988 electorate that chose Bush for president. There, Michael Dukakis won roughly the same share of seniors (49 percent) as he did voters younger than 30 (47 percent). Four years later, Bill Clinton won 43.5 percent of voters younger than 30 and 50 percent of voters 65 and older. If there was a generation gap, in other words, it was that older voters favored Democrats, not Republicans.

The main difference between young and old voters back then wasn’t whom they voted for as much as whether they voted in the first place. Grandfather and Grandson might vote for the same party, but the grandfather would show up for every election while his grandson was more likely to only vote every four years in a presidential election. That divide still exists. According to early exit polling, 37 percent of voters in this year’s election were 60 and older, compared to 12 percent who were under the age of 30.

The people who just elected a Republican Senate majority are a narrow, unrepresentative slice of voting-age Americans.

What’s different compared with the past is the partisan divide. Simply put, when young people go to the polls they vote for Democrats and when older people cast their ballots, they vote for Republicans. And the gap is huge. In 2008, Barack Obama won 66 percent of voters younger than 30 compared with 47 percent of voters 60 and older. Likewise, in the Republican wave election of 2010, congressional Democrats suffered their largest losses with older voters and had their best performance with the millennial generation. In 2012, President Obama gave a repeat performance on both scores, winning 60 percent of voters younger than 30 and losing 56 percent of voters 65 and older. This year, Democrats won 54 percent of the youngest voters while 57 percent of senior voters went to Republicans.

We’re at a point where one electorate—made up of young people and minorities—elects presidents and the occasional Senate majority while another—made up of older people, mostly white—elects the House of Representatives, with an occasional Senate majority as well.

But why is there a GOP midterm advantage now as opposed to 20 years ago, when the overall electorate was substantially whiter? The answer is demographics. First, as Ronald Brownstein has argued for the Atlantic, differences between white and nonwhite voters weren’t as severe as they are now. In congressional and presidential elections, Democratic candidates performed well with minorities and decently with whites, giving them a cushion in midterm contests—yes, the electorates were older, but they weren’t as Republican.

This is important. In the 1990s, a substantial number of older voters—if not most older voters—belonged to the Greatest Generation, the men and women who grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II. They were New Deal Democrats in their formative years, and they kept that affiliation through the rest of the 20th century.

Those political ties were evident in how they voted over time. According to a massive survey on the “generation gap” by the Pew Research Center, voters who turned 18 when Franklin Roosevelt was president were 8 points more Democratic than the average voter in 1994, 1996, and 1998; 11 points more Democratic in 2000; 3 points more Democratic in 2002; and 14 points more Democratic in 2004. By contrast, the next oldest cohort of voters—those who “came of age” during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—were substantially more Republican in most years.

The generation gap as we know it—when the oldest voters jumped to the Republican Party and the youngest became solidly Democratic—didn’t emerge until the 2004 election. That was partially because of the circumstances of that contest—President George W. Bush was running a campaign of national unity against foreign threats. It is also explained, again, by demographics. The Greatest Generation had shrunk and was in the process of being replaced by senior citizens who were much friendlier to Republican politicians.

At the same time, the youngest voters—people who turned 18 during the late Clinton and early Bush presidencies—were just entering the electorate. They were much more diverse, with large numbers of black Americans, Latinos, Asians, and mixed-race people. They were also more likely to be single and to be women, and not surprisingly, they were also far more liberal than their older counterparts. In that same Pew survey, we see that voters who turned 18 during this period were 13 points more Democratic in the 2002 congressional elections. Interestingly, in 2004 voters who came of age during Clinton’s presidency were 7 points more Republican, while those who came of age during Bush’s were 14 points more Democratic.

As we entered the 2000s then, we had several trends coming together at once. The overall voting population was getting younger and browner, and these new voters were more Democratic; older voters, however, were still whiter and becoming more Republican. And young people continued to vote in presidential elections and largely ignore the midterms, while the older generation was consistent, voting in almost every election.

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