September 15, 2019 📊 Could Donald Trump's presidency be creating a generation of Democrats?

Plus, which 2020 Democrat is closest to the median voter? And will that matter?

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. Thoughts? Drop me a line (or just respond to this email). 

Dear Reader,

This week’s main read: Many Americans receive their political attitudes from the people who surrounded them. Researchers call this process “political socialization” and its greatest impact comes when we are young, our minds are impressionable and we’re open to new ideas. Maybe you had a teacher you admired or went with your mother or father to vote, or maybe you even talked politics with your peers. The attitudes we receive when we’re young stick with us throughout our lives. Some theorizing along these lines points to a generational lurch to the left among America’s young voters.

This week, we also had quite a bit of polling on the 2020 Democratic primary, a special election in North Carolina and a Democratic presidential debate. I have some links worth checking out.

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This Week's Big Question

Could Donald Trump's presidency be creating a generation of Democrats?

Heightened salience of politics and political issues could result in a generation of young Americans being socialized against the Republican Party.

Image: Fibonacci Blue; Flickr

When I was five years old, nineteen terrorists flew 4 passenger airlines into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvanian topsoil and killed over 3,000 people. I don’t really remember that much, except for what my peers told me at school. Eight years later, I watched from my 7th grade literature classroom as the first black man ever to become president was sworn into office on the steps of the US Capitol. This is my second memory. They have determined so much of my political life.

You, too, probably have first and second (and third, and fourth…) political memories. Perhaps you know exactly where you were when the Soviet Union dissolved, when the Berlin Wall came down or when John F. Kennedy was shot. And you probably remember some of the political ideas that your parents, teachers or peers passed on to you when you were growing up. Political scientists call this “political socialization”. I, for example, was socialized by two parents who were moderately political for most of my childhood and opposed the wars in the Middle East, as well as by my rather conservative teachers and peers. I remember waking up early before school in junior high to watch the news with my parents and the many political and international affairs books that my dad kept around the house. I spent many hours in high school discussing the merits of various public policies for extracurricular debate club. And I remember my father didn’t much care for George W Bush.

Just like these memories stick with us, so too do the attitudes we are taught. And there is an entire group of young people whose first political memories, whose first attitudes, are about Donald Trump. And those attitudes will stick with them long after he’s gone. Given that the president is so unpopular, I reckon many of those attitudes will be negative.

“But Elliott”, you might be saying, “people’s political preferences change over time!” That’s rightly correct, but the aggregate effects of temporal political socialization persist. It’s not so much that people start out as liberal and grow to become conservatives, despite what Winston Churchill might have you believe (see below), but that an age group’s baseline political leanings are decided by the political events that occur while they grow up.

“If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” — Winston Churchill

This theory is substantiated by research from political scientists/statisticians Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman. In a 2014 paper titled “The Great Society, Reagan’s Revolution and Generations of Presidential Voting” the authors offer empirical evidence for the “running tally” theory of political socialization—that is, that people are introduced to political concepts over time, and “keep score” about their relative pro- or anti-Republican/Democratic views until they are “locked-in”. They also find that our youth years are a critical part of this “running tally” process:

“The political events surrounding the formative years around 14-24 are of paramount importance in structuring life-long presidential voting preferences [….] events Eem to have created five broad generations of voters — voters born in the 1930s or early (pro-Democrat); 1941 (Republican); 1952 (Democrat); 1968 (Republican); and the 1980s or later (Democrat).”

Ghitza and Gelman find a link between presidential approval ratings and a generation’s partisan lean. Specifically, when a Republican president has low approval ratings or a Democratic president is performing well, voters who are coming-of-age then become inclined toward Democrats. (The vice versa is also true; popular Republican leaders and unpopular Democrats create Republican-leaning young people.)

In the following chart, Ghitza and Gelman show that Millennial voters drifted to the left in their formative years, where their cumulative inclination towards Democrats stabilized. This happened while George Bush’s approval ratings sunk and Barack Obama’s hung around 50%.

The correlation between partisan loyalty and presidential approval is important here because it allows us to estimate the partisan lean of different age groups at different points in time.

Let me re-state a critical point for my argument: When Democrats do well/Republicans do poorly, young voters are socialized to have a life-long lean toward the Democrats. When Republicans do well and Democrats poorly, young voters are socialized to lean Republican.

So, what would we guess would come of voters who were socialized during the Trump presidency? Because of the president’s historically poor approval ratings, we can probably infer that the current group of coming-of-age voters will come to be Democratic-leaning for life. (A point of clarification: by “Democratic-leaning”, I mean more loyal to Democrats than the average voter, though not necessarily *always* voting for Democrats; in large GOP-wave years, they could change sides while still being directionally left-leaning.) This theory also draws on the fact that President Obama was relatively popular in his final years as president. Again, popular Democrat + unpopular Republican = Democratic-leaning voters.

Going forward, if America’s Republican leadership continues to be so unpopular, especially relative to Democratic politicians, we should expect Generation Z to be a left-leaning group. But that is no sure bet, and a historically unpopular Democratic president could reverse the trends that Trump has ushered in. It would be cool to see what Ghitza and Gelman uncover with a renewed study using updated data.

But hey, if you don’t buy all this sociological gobbledygook, just take a look at the survey evidence that indicates Generation Z already shares a lot of political attitudes that are popular among Millennials. They may even be more left-leaning.

And now, some of the stuff that I read (and wrote) over the last week.

Posts for subscribers:

Political Data

The Economist: “What a Republican victory in North Carolina means for 2020”

With text from my colleague John and data/a graph from me…

Philip Bump (Washington Post): “Trump is, indeed, the king of debt”

Since the administration of President Bill Clinton, there have been two periods of massive federal deficits. The first was during Obama’s first term, in the aftermath of a recession. The other is now, in the aftermath of ... well, tax cuts, in part.

Nate Cohn (The Upshot): “Moderate Democrats Fared Best in 2018”

If the Democratic nominee did wind up embracing a more left-leaning agenda, there is no way to be sure that there would be an electoral penalty. But decades of research suggest that ideologically moderate candidates tend to do well in American elections. The advantage of nominating an ideologically moderate versus an extreme candidate may be smaller in today’s more polarized era, but it still seems to exist.
In Republican-held congressional districts, the Democratic candidates who supported Medicare for all, for instance, fared as much as a net three points worse than those who did not, after controlling for other factors like recent presidential and congressional election results.
Candidates who supported Medicare for all probably differ in other ways from those who opposed it. But Medicare for all is a good proxy for a certain kind of candidate favored by the activist left, and that kind of candidate did a bit worse in last year’s elections.
Similarly, candidates who opposed Ms. Pelosi fared an additional 2.5 points better than those who did not, even after controlling for whether a candidate supported Medicare for all.

LA Times/USC Poll: “Democrats see Biden, Warren as close fits ideologically, view Sanders as more extreme”

Democratic primary voters nationwide see former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as relatively close to their own political views but regard Sen. Bernie Sanders as significantly further to their left, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows.
The Democrats see Biden as slightly more conservative than themselves and Warren as slightly more liberal, the poll found.
As with other recent surveys, the latest USC/L.A. Times poll shows Biden, Sanders and Warren as the top choices for Democrats nationwide, with Warren having moved into an approximate tie with Sanders for second place behind Biden. Sen. Kamala Harris has faded, having lost many of her supporters after a surge earlier in the summer.
Among the lead trio, Sanders has a couple of significant disadvantages, the poll indicates.
Ideology is one factor that goes into how voters choose whom to support — though not necessarily the deciding one. In the past, candidates seen as on the ideological extremes have often faced problems; Sanders’ status as the outlier in the Democratic field could limit his ability to expand his support

Laura Bronner and Ella Koeze (FiveThirtyEight): “The Third Democratic Debate In 7 Charts”

Another way to assess who won last night’s debate is to see who convinced more voters to at least think about voting for them. Most candidates saw some change in the share of likely Democratic primary voters who were considering supporting them, though not all changes were positive. Warren, for example, saw the biggest increase in voters who were considering her — almost 4 percentage points, while Harris lost more than 2 percentage points of potential support. But for most candidates, the numbers stayed pretty much the same as they had been before the debate. Even for those whose debate performance stood out — like Biden and Castro, who got relatively poor grades, or O’Rourke, who got a strong rating — there was little change in how many likely primary voters said they were considering voting for them.

Also: Julián Castro’s attacks against Biden may have done more harm than good:

Other Data and Cool Stuff

Sarah Almukhtar, Blacki Migliozzi, John Schwartz and Josh Williams (New York Times): “The Great Flood of 2019: A Complete
Picture of a Slow-Motion Disaster”

A great interactive:

Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

A. J. Wang: “Measuring Electability, Fourteen Months from the Election”

While it’s easy to predict the final gap in net favorability when the election is 1–2 months away — the slope is nearly perfectly along the 45-degree line — it is very hard to do so as the election gets farther out.
In short, there is likely to be a lot of movement between now and Election Day, and focusing on the fluctuations in net favorability now is not especially informative for predicting the final net favorability gap.


let’s assume that the gap between two leading candidates in terms of net favorability was 4 points. If this occurred at around 8 months out from the election (around Super Tuesday 2020), the estimated relationship between net favorability and vote share would be about 0.1. That translates into a difference of about 0.4 points in expected vote share for the Democratic party in November.

What I'm Reading and Working On

I’m thinking a lot about congressional retirements and election results, and separately, an uptick in American deaths of despair. More to come on these ideas. I didn’t read any books this week (I’m falling behind on my reading). At work, we’re doing more with our interactive content on the 2020 Democratic primary.

Something Fun

If you’re around my age, you probably grew up watching Pokémon (or at least know what it is). If you did, good news! Ash Ketchum is finally a Pokémon master! Just a reminder that it’s never too late to achieve your dreams (it only took 20 years).

Thanks for reading!

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