Millennial voters go left: Is age now driving the West's political rage?

Tom Switzer, Charles Jacobs

04 July 2018 | Financial Review

Millennials are lurching left in ways that could have profound consequences for Western politics. Since the beginning of the century, there has been a major shift in the political sentiments of young voters in Western democracies. As more people born between 1980 and 1996 have become eligible to vote, the political alignment of younger voters has become disconnected from the overall electorate.

Take the UK. In the past two decades, Conservatives have made sustained increases in their share of the overall vote, increasing from 31 per cent in 1997 to 44 per cent in 2017.

However, despite consistent gains, the Conservative youth vote has declined in three of five elections since 2000 – the only times since polling began that the youth vote hasn’t moved in parallel with their overall electoral fortunes.

In 2017, only 27 per cent of voters aged 18-34 voted Tory, down from 38 per cent in 1992. A large majority of this Millennial demographic, 59 per cent, supported the socialist Jeremy Corbyn-driven “youth quake”.

In Australia, the Coalition has won four of the six federal elections since the turn of the century. However, in all of these victories roughly 60 per cent of young voters have backed Labor on a two-party-preferred (2PP) basis. In 2013, Labor only won 46.5 per cent of the 2PP vote – one of its lowest results in decades. Yet 59.5 per cent of young voters stuck with them.

Similar splits can be seen in the US, with young people voting overwhelmingly for left-leaning parties and candidates. Just last week, 28-year-old socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated establishment Democrat Joseph Crowley in the party’s key New York congressional primary. Key to her platform were promises of generational and ideological change.

Conventional wisdom holds, as the old cliche goes, “if you are not a socialist by 20, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative by the time you are 40, you have no brain”. However, the permanent leftwards shift among younger voters is a relatively new trend. For much of the previous four decades, electoral data from western nations showed that income and class had a far greater impact on voting choice than age.

With Ronald Reagan’s landslide election victory in 1984, for instance, 59 per cent of overall voters supported him. Importantly, his support among those under 30 was 59 per cent, almost as high as his 62 per cent vote share from those over 50. In 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton received close to 50 per cent of the vote from all age groups.

By contrast, an analysis of voting by income demonstrates a far greater spit. Republicans have usually won the majority of the high income vote, with the Democrats typically taking nearly two-thirds of the low-income vote since polling began in the 1970s. However, in recent years these differences have reduced to single digits.

With young people mobilising as a progressive electoral force, it is important to look at whether other age groups are also voting with their generation rather than their class.

Age appears to be an important factor in the UK. While middle-aged voters generally followed the rest of the nation, over 65s have begun to vote overwhelmingly Conservative. In 2017, 61 per cent voted to the right, up from 36 per cent in 1997: almost a direct inversion of the youth vote.

So the UK “youth quake” seemingly has seen Millennials surge to the left, but it has been somewhat counteracted by shift in senior voters to the right. While this may maintain a balance between left and right, it could lead to increasingly bitter polarisation between young and old. Think Brexit.

In the US, the voter split in the middle-aged and senior voters is much smaller than the massive difference that has emerged in young voters. For these groups the biggest gap was the 12 percentage point lead to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012: a stark contrast to the 34-percentage point difference in young people, who voted for Obama in 2008.

It appears that Millennials’ ideological lurch is not being counteracted by any notable shift to the right amongst older voters. As a result, the US electorate could develop an increasingly unbalanced polarity.

Recent polling commissioned by the Centre for Independent Studies reaffirms this swing to the left. Younger voters are increasingly favouring more taxes and greater government spending. They also believe capitalism has failed and have a favourable view of socialism.

To the extent these trends continue, the leftward shift of the Millennial generation could have significant implications. By 2020, Millennials will make up 35 per cent of the global workforce. They will move into positions of influence in business, politics and the media. As the older generations move out of the limelight, western nations could be shifting seismically to the left like never before.

Tom Switzer is executive director at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney where Charles Jacobs is a policy analyst.

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