Riding a wave of discontent with Washington, Republicans scored a resounding win in Tuesday’s midterm election capturing at least seven Senate seats, retiring a slew of Democratic incumbents and taking control of the Senate. Despite extremely favorable conditions, the GOP still managed to exceed most expectations winning not only across the South, but capturing governorships in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts.
Beyond the GOP’s better-than-anticipated performance, there were very few surprises in an election that, from the start, seemed to be coping with an identity crisis. As expected, the midterm electorate was much older than it was two years ago. Young voters (age 18 to 29) made up only 13 percent of the electorate this year, about the same proportion as 2010 (11 percent). Also, despite some indications that younger voters had grown frustrated with President Obama, they remain the most Democratic age group. A majority (54 percent) of young voters supported Democratic candidates this year, which was similar to the support Democratic candidates received in 2010 (56 percent).
However, there are signs that the Democrats will not maintain their current advantage among young voters indefinitely. The solid Democratic performance among younger voters masks two important divisions which will become increasingly meaningful: age and race. As I recently noted on Brookings’ FixGov blog, the past couple years have witnessed a growing political divide between white and non-white Millennials. In our most recent survey, only 37 percent of white Millennials reported a favorable view of the president. Reflecting this racial divide, Republicans won young white voters handily this year (54 percent to 43 percent). Another less obvious, but possibly more consequential, rift was also evident last night. Republicans increased their margin among the youngest voters (age 18 to 24), from 39 percent in 2010 to 44 percent in 2014, while Democratic support dropped slightly among this group. As Dan Hopkins and others have noted, older Millennials whose formative political experiences came about during the second half of George W. Bush’s presidency appear more Democratic than those who came of age after.
Even elections that do not appear to be about much of anything, can signal important shifts in the electorate’s political compass. By the year 2020, all Millennials will have reached voting age, and will account for roughly 40 percent of the country’s eligible voters. What happens to them now will be pivotal for the future of both political parties and could fundamentally reorder America’s political landscape.