As the country gears up for the 2012 election, three groups--Hispanics, young people and women--are under the media spotlight, and for good reason. The Hispanic electoral juggernaut is arriving much faster than many demographers predicted, and it tilts hard Democratic. Two-thirds of young people, many of whom are minorities, voted for President Obama in 2008. And women--particularly single, working, educated ones--are more Democratic than men.
But it may not be all bad news for the GOP. A close look at another major group--aging baby boomers--shows that this growing demographic is becoming more conservative.
The size of this group magnifies its political clout. Drawing on new Census data, demographer William Frey wrote recently in a Brookings Institution report that the older population (45 years of age and older) grew more than 18 times as fast as the younger generation (45 and younger) between 2000 and 2010. Most notable, he says, is the 50% growth of those between the ages of 55 and 64. For the first time, people over 45 represent a majority (53%) of the voting-age population.
If the GOP can successfully win over the near and new olds, graying America could officially turn red.
Since 1964, the Census has asked people whether they voted on Election Day, and the age skew is unmistakable: Older Americans vote more than younger ones. In 2008, 49% of 18-24 year olds reported voting. Compare that to the 72% for those ages 55-64 ("near olds"), and 70% for those 65 and older ("new olds").
The shifting views of the liberal and libertine '60s generation aren't new. It started becoming more conservative some 20 years ago.
Consider a 1986 poll for Time Magazine conducted by the firm Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. It reported that 64% of 30-40 year olds said their political views had become more conservative since the 1960s, while 27% said they were less so. Forty-one percent described themselves as conservative, yet only 28% said they were conservative in the '60s and '70s. Of those who had moved rightward, the top explanation they gave for their shift was assuming family responsibilities. More of those 30-40 years olds still described themselves as Democrats (38%) than Republicans (24%). But the trend, according to the pollster, was in the Republican direction.
The University of Michigan's American National Election Study provides additional perspective. In 1972, 51% of eligible voters in the cohort born between 1943 and 1958--the front end of the baby boom--called themselves Democrats, and 29% identified as Republicans. In 2008, those responses were 45% Democrat and 48% Republican.
The ideological identification data from the surveys are even more striking than party affiliation. Thirty percent of today's near olds called themselves liberals in 1972. In 2008, 12% did. The proportion calling themselves conservative rose to 46% in 2008 from 21% in 1972, according to the survey.
A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center also shows a substantial increase (18 points) between 1974 and 2010 in conservative identification for the 55-64 (near old) cohort. They also moved 11 points in the Republican direction during that period.
Despite their ideological shift, the near olds are not a reliable Republican bloc--yet. In 2008, 45-59 year-olds made up 30% of the electorate. They split their votes between Barack Obama and John McCain evenly: 49% to 49%. (Compare that to the national electorate, which voted 53% to 46% for Mr. Obama). Of those 60 and older, 51% voted for Mr. McCain, compared to 47% for Mr. Obama.
Partisan identification, informed by coming of age and real-world experience, changes slowly. The near olds' youthful sentiments and the fallout from Vietnam and Watergate put them mostly in the Democratic camp. They have become more conservative, but still they haven't fully embraced the GOP.
The unpopularity of President Bush at the end of his time in office, coupled with Mr. Obama's exciting candidacy, gave Democrats an 11-point advantage over Republicans among self-identified registered voters 50-64 years old, according to 2008 Pew data. But they're not looking as satisfied with the president's party these days. So far this year, the Democrats only carry a five-point advantage. Among those 65 and older, Democrats had an eight-point advantage in 2008; the GOP now has a two-point advantage. Among whites, the shifts in these age groups toward the GOP are also dramatic. Whites in the 50-64 year-old age group split 45% to 45% in 2008; now the Republicans have a nine-point advantage (50% to 41%). In 2008, Republicans had a two-point advantage among the 65+ group. It is now 12 points.
In the future, both parties will vie for the allegiance of these politically consequential older voters. President Obama is struggling with them now, and Democrats are trying to drive a wedge between aging boomers and the GOP on issues such as Medicare and Social Security. If the GOP can successfully win over the near and new olds, graying America could officially turn red.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
Andrew Rugg is a research assistant for the Political Corner at AEI.