Heading into the 2016 presidential election, Democrats remain convinced that their victory is already baked into the electoral cake. The last two presidential votes have seen them rack up enormous majorities among minorities, women, and young voters. With immigration reform stymied, they think the growing numbers of Hispanic voters are firmly in their pockets. And they are sure that Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of their ticket will ensure a clear advantage among women. They’re also sure that young voters will be as liberal next year as they were in 2008 and 2012 when they turned out in record numbers to back Barack Obama. But what if their assumptions about the nation’s youth are wrong? That’s the question Democrats need to ask themselves today after the publication of a new poll from Harvard University’s Institute on Politics. According to the poll, voters aged 18-29 are now far less likely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 than they were in the last two such elections. That sets up a race that resembles 2004 more than 2008, which is a possible recipe for a Republican victory.
Most pundits assumed that the Republicans’ stronger showing among young voters in the 2014 midterms was a statistical glitch produced by the lower turnout in that election than in a presidential year. But the type of advantage that Democrats enjoyed when Barack Obama was their candidate may vanish when he retires.
The Harvard poll shows that a generic Democratic candidate will still win the 18-29 year old vote in 2016 by a 55-40 percent margin. That’s a clear edge, but it is nowhere near as decisive as President Obama’s 66-32 percent win among young voters in 2008 or his 60-37 victory in that demographic in 2012. In fact that 55-40 result bears a startling resemblance to the 54-45 margin among 18-29 year olds that John Kerry won over President Bush in 2004.
What possible reason could there be for such a swing among voters assumed to be so liberal on social issues that they’d never consider voting for the GOP?
One is obvious. Barack Obama’s historic importance as our first African-American president as well as his personal appeal made him a unique political figure. No other Democrat, not even the person trying to be the first female president, can match his hold on the electorate, especially young people who were particularly vulnerable to Obama’s “hope and change” mantra. As much as many Democrats would prefer to think the gains they made in 2008 and 2012 are now part of the permanent infrastructure of American politics, they may be ephemeral.
The second is that the changing economic environment for young people entering the work force may be leading them to think more about fiscal issues than social ones like gay marriage and abortion that work to the advantage of liberals. Moreover, the anti-Iraq war sentiments that dominated the 2008 election may have gradually moderated to the point where a lot of young people are worrying as much if not more about the threat of terrorism.
The caveat here is that elections are not fought and won by generic candidates. If Republicans nominate someone who turns off young voters or who emphasizes social issues that hurt the GOP then they may slip back. By the same token, one who can run as a representative of a new generation seeking to challenge a tired and possibly corrupt retread such as Hillary Clinton stands a chance of exceeding the 2004 totals. Also troubling for Democrats is the real possibility that Clinton fatigue, accentuated by the Clinton Cash charges that continue to drip, drip, drip out, will further depress the Democrats’ brand.
But the main conclusion to draw from these figures is that no one in either party should make any assumptions about the 2016 electorate from 2008 or 2012. Change is the one constant in politics as well as life and that means things could get better for the Democrats, but also the very real possibility that they could get worse. Either way, the path to an Electoral College majority for Republicans that many on the left have come to see as a fantasy may be far more realistic than they care to think. If, as the Harvard poll illustrates, young voters are up for grabs, anything is possible.