Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explored groups of Americans who are often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.
Because the midterms are heating up — check out our election forecast, which just published — this will be the last entry in the Political Outliers series for the foreseeable future. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this column!
A native of Austin, Texas, Hunter Ellinger grew up in a progressive hotspot. In a recent phone conversation, he recalled his upbringing in the 1950s, when a group of liberal activists — often organized by his mother and father — would repeatedly protest racist laws passed by the state’s legislature. Ellinger was a teenager at the time and, therefore, unable to vote, but he still remembers feeling “like an anomaly within Texas.”
Now, at 79 years old, those feelings have only intensified. Ellinger still lives in Austin, one of Texas’s most liberal cities, and boasts that, in a sense, he’s carried on his mother’s legacy: He was involved in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the 1970s alternative press and participated in a slew of anti-war protests over the last several decades.
“I’ve voted in every election I’ve ever been able to vote in, which started in 1964, and I’ve always voted Democratic,” Ellinger said, noting that the current party is further to the right than he is. “I would describe myself as half-commie, half-anarchist,” he said. “I want the government and society as a whole to work for everybody, but I also want everybody to be strong enough and free enough to put things together in their own way.”
Given his political leanings, Ellinger described himself as a “Silent Generation progressive.” But that’s not the norm for voters his age. In fact, Americans in Ellinger’s age group — those over the age of 65 — were the most likely of any age group to say that they approved of former President Donald Trump’s job performance, and registered voters from his generation were the most likely to favor Republican candidates, according to the Pew Research Center. And among registered voters, Silent Generation men were more likely than women of the same age to favor Republicans as well.
This is in line with the conventional wisdom that there’s a consistent age gap in our politics today, where older voters vote red and younger voters veer blue. And there are myriad reasons why this is the case. For one, older Americans are more likely to be white and religious — two demographic groups that also tend to vote Republican. They’re also more likely to favor less government intervention and are more prone to believing that increased diversity isn’t a good thing for the country — which is in line with many Republicans’ way of thinking.
But these sentiments weren’t shared by the four voters older than 50, including Ellinger, whom I spoke with for this piece. In fact, many were closer to younger generations — like Gen Z or millennials — when it came to their political beliefs; climate change, racial justice, abortion access and higher wages were among some of the top policy priorities they listed, even if they were skeptical that Congress would address these things in their lifetime. Moreover, even though almost everyone I talked with said they wished the Democratic Party would go further left and support policies championed by, say, members of “The Squad,” a progressive group of Democratic lawmakers made up mainly of women of color, they didn’t begrudge President Biden for not pushing forward a more progressive political agenda, as he once promised. Rather, several applauded him for the work he’s done in office post-Trump, but wished the Democratic Party itself would invest more in building a younger, more liberal bench of successors.
“I do feel like the lack of constant generation change has left Democrats a little stuck,” said Pamela M., a 52-year-old from rural Maryland who preferred to use only her first name and last initial for privacy. “They don’t know how to advertise and haven’t had a great ground-game strategy in a way that a wide swath of people respond to.”
Of course, that hasn’t deterred Pamela M. — a self-described “Warren Democrat” — from supporting and voting for Democratic candidates over the years. But part of the reason for her loyalty might have less to do with her agreeing with establishment Democrats’ policy priorities and more to do with the fact that, on average, voters over 45 years old (and especially those 65 and older) are the age group most likely to turn out to vote. Since 1996 or so, there’s been a correlation between voter participation and age, and in 2020, almost 72 percent of those ages 65 and over cast a ballot — about 10 percentage points more than the national average.
Certain polls and reports by interest groups representing older voters suggest that those over the age of 50 may be slightly competitive as a voting bloc; but on the whole, older voters do lean Republican. In 2016 and 2020, according to Pew’s validated-voter survey, Trump won Silent Generation voters — those born between 1928 and 1945 — by 19- and 16-percentage-point margins, respectively. Meanwhile, baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — were more split between Democrats and Republicans, although Trump still narrowly bested Biden and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton among voters in this generation.
There are always outliers, though. In fact, there’s a small percentage of older Americans who said that they not only lean Democratic — but identify more with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. According to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, about 6 percent of Americans1 born in 1955 or before identified as “very liberal,” 12 percent as “liberal” and another 7 percent as “somewhat liberal.” This compares to roughly 50 percent of Americans born in 1955 or before who said they were “somewhat” or more conservative. But many of the left-of-center voters I spoke with didn’t just identify as liberal, they also said that it was detrimental for other people their age to consistently cast ballots for the GOP.
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“Typically, the older and wealthier you become, the more likely you are to vote Republican,” said Kathleen Helbing, a 70-year-old living in Indiana and a self-described socialist. “But I don’t know why people vote against their own economic interests. To any old person who votes Republican, especially after [Florida Sen.] Rick Scott put out this 11-point agenda that discussed potentially sunsetting federal legislation, like Social Security, I think, ‘Are you people out of your mind?’”
As is the case for Americans as a whole, the No. 1 issue for voters over 65 is the economy, and the GOP’s messaging there might resonate more with older voters concerned with things like inflation, rising prices of everyday items and unemployment if they’re not retired. “I suspect most of it has to do with accumulating more money as they get older, and wanting to protect their monetary interests. They believe the Republican policies will help protect their interests,” said Liz McGeachy, a 64-year-old from Tennessee.
Another point might also contribute to why older Americans often lean Republican: They’re more likely to be racist. In a September 2021 Public Religion Research Institute survey, Americans ages 65 and older were 25 points more likely to say that America’s “culture and way of life” had mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s than they were to say it’d mostly changed for the better — a common refrain among the GOP voters these days. And according to data that Pew published in January 2019, older generations were less likely than younger generations to say that they thought more racial and ethnic diversity was a good thing for society. In September 2021, meanwhile, Pew also found that adults ages 50-64 (49 percent) and those ages 65 and older (46 percent) were the age groups least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
In other words, as the Democratic Party becomes increasingly multiracial, older white voters — especially those with racially conservative views — might be turned off from supporting Democrats. “I don’t know whether it’s racism and the fear that Latino and African American people are going to have more power someday?” Helbing said. “I guess a lot of people see life as a zero-sum game that if you get, I lose.”
The older progressive voters I talked with, of course, don’t buy into that messaging and, as a result, have been loyal Democratic voters for most — if not all — of their lives. That said, just because the people I spoke with identify as progressives doesn’t mean they were necessarily over the moon with the current Democrats holding federal office. Many gave Biden plaudits for handling what one voter called a “disaster” inherited by the Trump administration, but they also weren’t optimistic that more progressive policies would happen anytime soon.
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“Sometimes there’s this expectation that everything is going to change now, but I think change is a moderate experience and not necessarily immediate,” said Pamela M., the 52-year-old from Maryland. “I have progressive ideas on what should happen but a realistic timeline on when it’ll happen. A lot of young progressives think you can vote and win an election and everything changes, but that’s not how things typically work.”
Part of this pragmatism could be because, as Ellinger told me, voters his age have been following politics for so long that they know it takes a long time for real change to occur. That’s especially true today, given the fact that a moderate Democrat holds the presidency and Democrats hold only slim majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“I think Biden and such represent a substantial majority of the Democratic Party. It would be great to the extent that could be changed, to add more people to the left of them in positions of power, but I don’t think, at this moment, that’ll happen,” Ellinger said. “Democracy doesn’t always give you perfect results, but the nature of it is working with people who are representative of most of your political beliefs.”
But there might be another reason why progressive ideas aren’t likely to pass anytime soon: a perception among voters that Democrats are already too liberal. According to data that Morning Consult published in July 2021, the share of registered voters between 2017 and 2021 who said the Democratic Party was “too liberal” rose 5 percentage points. In 2021, a plurality of all voters (45 percent) and independent voters (46 percent) were more likely to say this was the case, compared with 37 percent of voters and 34 percent of independents who said the GOP has gone too far right.
I expected a number of progressives voters I talked with to say that the Democratic Party — and, by default, Biden — should move further left. And while some people either endorsed this idea or admitted that the party now is further right than they are, most said that the best way for the Democratic Party to move forward would be for them to develop a message that can unite everyone in their base and cease infighting.
“I lean toward wanting the moderate Democrats to embrace the policies of the more progressive members of the party, but I also believe the progressive wing needs to be willing to compromise too,” McGeachy said. “They all need to create a unified message, stand behind it and share it with the whole country — not just preach to the choir.”
That said, many voters think that politicians around the age of, say, Biden, who will turn 80 in November, shouldn’t be the ones running the show — let alone holding the presidency. Many advocated for ushering in younger, nonwhite leaders into the Democratic Party who could help move it further left.
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“I think when you hit 70 years old, you say, ‘It’s time to make room for another generation. I will tend my garden or write poetry or stare out a window, but I will make room so that other people can have a crack at it,’” said Helbing, the 70-year-old in Indiana. “Because they couldn’t screw things up any more than we have.” Biden, she said, is going to be in his 80s in mere months. “I’m going to be 71 soon, and I don’t think I’m as sharp as I was 20 years ago.”
Asking older politicians to step down might be tough, though. Beyond the fact that senators and representatives aren’t term-limited, many will sit in office as long as voters keep electing them, instead of choosing to retire. Because of these factors, young people are badly underrepresented in Congress: The average age of a U.S. senator is currently 64 — roughly 26 years older than the median U.S. resident. In the House, the average age is 58. And going into the 2020 election, many of the leading presidential contenders — Trump, Biden and Sanders — were all septuagenarians. Biden himself was first elected to the Senate in 1972, meaning that he has been in Washington for nearly half a century — longer than most have been alive.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a younger, more progressive guard to come into Congress and make the sort of difference that the voters I spoke with want. But it’ll be an uphill battle, especially as party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continue to back more moderate Democrats over their progressive challengers this primary season.
Plus, as we’ve previously reported, progressive Democrats often need larger, multiracial coalitions to win elections. But several of the people I spoke with said it’d be harmful to the party not to start building out a younger bench and helping these Democrats get elected.
“I think Democrats fail to plan for generational change, and so we have a lot of newer, young people coming in, but there hasn’t been a plan for a changing of the guard and changing ideas along with that,” Pamela M. said. “Democrats need to be focusing on local and state elections to see who they can … train as the next generation. And they should’ve been doing this all along.”
Additional research by Holly Fuong.