Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When the senior vote shifted

Last week, I wrote about the youth vote's mass embrace of Democrats that began in 2004 and continues through today.

To remind: Young people picked the correct winner of every presidential election from 1980 to 2000, and backed those winners by margins similar to the overall population.

But in 2004, the youngest set of voters picked the losing candidate (John Kerry) and did so by 13%, and the youth vote continues to skew heavily-Democratic -- something we just didn't see until 2004.

Well, today let's look at another demographic that shifted dramatically in 2004, and that's seniors citizens -- the socks-to-the-knees set.

It just so happens that their mass shift and skew also began in 2004.

A couple interesting things emerge.

a.  From 1988 through 2000, seniors voted more Democratic than any other age group.

They were stronger backers of Dukakis (1988), Clinton (1992) and Gore (2000) than any other age group, including young people.

b. Democratic strength with seniors eroded in Bush's reelection run. In 2000, seniors were Gore's biggest backers, but in 2004 they became Bush's biggest backers.

In 2000, seniors picked Gore over Bush, 51%-47%, but four years later, they backed Bush, 52%-47%. In other words, in just four years, they went from being the most Democratic age group to being one of Bush's strongest.

The fascinating this is that 2004 marked the year that young people turned heavily away from the Republican nominee; thus, we saw heavy skews to Democrats and Republicans at the bookends.

So what's all this about?

Well, the ostensible answer is that generations tend to hold their own ideologies. For example, seniors in the 1980's were slightly more Republican than other age groups. Once they died off, the next generation carried its ideologies, and sure enough, the 55 year old Democratic Dems in the 1980's became the 65 year-old Democratic Dems in the 1990's.

All that makes sense. But that doesn't explain the huge swing we started to see in 2004 and that continues until today.

Today's senior vote  is heavily Republican, but when this batch of folks was younger, they were relatively split and voted in-line with the nation.

So what change explains the gap?

That's a question for deeper reflection, but the sum of this is that 2004 was a watershed election where seniors began skewing heavily-Republican and young people heavily-Democratic.

Using exit poll data from the Roper Center, here are the raw numbers I used:


2012: Romney 56% Obama 44% (more Republican than any age group).

2008: McCain 53% Obama 45% (more Republican than any age group).

2004: Bush 52% Kerry 47% (slightly more Republican than overall popular vote).

2000: Gore 51% Bush 47% (Strongest age group for Gore).

1996: Clinton 50% Dole 44% (slightly more Democratic than popular vote).

1992: Clinton 50% Bush 39% (Clinton picked up substantially more support among seniors than any other age group. It was the only age group where Clinton picked up 50% of the vote).

1988: Bush 51% Dukakis 49% (Most Democratic age group).

1984: Reagan 64% Mondale 36% (that's 5 percentage points more Republican than all age groups, combined).

1980: Reagan 55% Carter/Anderson 45% (slightly more Republican than all age groups, combined)