As the 2016 elections begin to dominate the news, a recurring message has seeped into the narrative being spoon-fed to the American public: Millennials will be the key demographic and the single most important voting group. Really?
If this sounds strangely familiar, it is. In 2008, we were told that youth would “rock the vote.” What’s the difference between the youth vote and millennials? The “youth vote” typically refers to those 18-24 years of age, while millennials are recognized as those born from 1981 to 2000. But whatever age parameters you put on this demographic, they have one thing in common: Few of them bother to vote. According to the Census Bureau, the turnout rate for youth, which was already low, declined from 2008 to 2012. Of those 18-24-year-olds who were eligible to vote in the last presidential election, only 41 percent showed up. Compare that with the 72 percent of seniors, 65 and older, who voted in 2012, and it becomes even clearer. In 2014, though admittedly a midterm election, only 21.3 percent of millennials cast a ballot. They constituted only 13 percent of the total electorate. There are many statistics on millennials and the youth vote, and they all point to the same conclusion: Voting is not a priority for them. Their most common excuses are “too busy” or “scheduling conflict.”
Over the years, we have seen many other demographic labels offered to simplify the complexities of voter turnout. Remember these oldies but goodies?
In 1994, when the Republicans won control of both the Senate and House by historic proportions, we were told by the media it was simply “angry white males.” Did anyone wonder if there really were 40 million angry white males?
In 1996, the “gender gap” was given credit for Bill Clinton’s reelection. Indeed, 54 percent of all women voted for Clinton. In 2008, Barack Obama did even better with 56 percent of the female vote.
But “it’s easy to be fooled by demographics if you look at them in just one dimension,” observes Whit Ayres, Republican pollster and author of 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America. “Historically, 60 percent of the African-American vote is female. Since African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democrat, that’s a major reason why there is this perception of a gender gap,” writes Ayres. Although it does not garner much press, there is another political gender gap. Every Republican presidential candidate since 1980 has received a majority of the male vote.
In 2012, the focus shifted to Hispanics as the vital voting bloc. But as Mark Hugo Lopez and Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center observe, “Hispanics continue to punch below their weight.” In the last presidential election, Latino turnout was just 48 percent—far below that of whites (64.1 percent) and blacks (66.2 percent). And one can make the case that it’s not likely to get larger. Hispanics are 17 percent of the U.S. population; 24 percent are under the age of 18. When they become eligible to vote, they will likely mirror other youth, i.e., most won’t vote.
Following the 2014 election, the New York Times’s Nate Cohn wrote that the GOP doesn’t need the Hispanic vote to win the White House. “In 2016, Hispanics will represent just 12 percent of eligible voters, and between 9-10 percent of actual voters. That’s a lot, but it is not large enough to grant or deny Republicans the presidency.”
So, if elections are determined by those who do show up to vote, and if the past is predictive of future behavior, then pundits should be talking about the senior vote. Yes, seniors.
According to census data, the 65-plus age group is the fastest growing demographic in America. This demographic increased by 7.1 percent from 2010 to 2012 and now totals more than 43 million Americans. Put another way, seniors’ share of the electorate rose 6 percent between 2012 and 2014 while the youth voters’ share fell 6 percent in that same time period.
Voter turnout dropped from 40.9 percent to 36.6 percent in the 2014 midterm elections compared with the 2010 midterms, with just 12 states recording a higher turnout. Correlation may not equal causation, but those 12 states had only one thing in common: They all had significant increases in their senior population.
Seniors have been the most consistent voting demographic election after election. And as the baby-boom generation continues to age, this trend will likely extend for decades to come in even greater numbers. They may not be tech-savvy or trendsetters, but seniors are a political powerhouse.
“Seniors vote because they’re vested. The political system is important to their being. They’re not going to vote for Democrats, but they are going to vote. You can take that to the bank,” says nationally recognized Democratic pollster John Zogby.