US Election Countdown: T-minus Five Days - the Youth Vote will be the Decider
Head of FX Strategy, Saxo Bank Group
Summary: In the US election countdown piece, we look at the tendency for elections in a time of turmoil to raise voter engagement among younger voters, and why their higher turnout at the polls is likely to strongly favour Democrats this time around. It is safe to say that 2020 is a year of turmoil and that the young generation is engaged, hopping mad and ready to take power as it is the largest potential voting age cohort in America.
This is the third in a daily series of articles I will run through Election Day next Tuesday and for as many days after that day that are necessary until a result is clear. Today I look at developing the narrative in support of my thesis that we have very high odds of a strong Democratic result in this election, if nothing else due to the size of the young population and their increased inclination to vote this time.
Isn’t it safe to say that this is a “turmoil election”? And if so, what does that mean?
Looking at the graphic from the US Census Bureau below, it is remarkable to note some of the remarkable shifts in voter turnout from US presidential election to US presidential election over the last few decades. All age groups tend to swing in the same direction in turnout, some more so than others in specific elections. And we can see that the largest total participation rates among younger voters have been seen in elections occurring in a “time of turmoil” when the economy was in very bad shape and an incumbent was therefore vulnerable. The two highest voter turnout years for young voters were 1992 and 2008, but I also want to bring 2000 and 2004 into the discussion here.
The 1992 election came after 12 years of Reagan and Bush Senior, when there was also the novel aspect of the most “viable” third-party candidate (Ross Perot) in recent memory. That year, the US had just suffered a recession and unemployment was only just coming down from its peak of 7.8% in the summer of 1992 a few months before the election. The youth (18-29) participation rate rocketed from 43.8% in 1988 to 52% in 1992.
Before getting to 2008, note the 2000 election, when the young stayed home in droves (again after staying home in 1996 – Bill Clinton might as well have been Reagan for his policies…) as Al Gore assumed Clinton’s mantle and had the awkward optics for the young of his explicit song-lyric policing wife Tipper. Gore losing that election by a hair was down to a staggering inability to inspire voters to turn up at the polls and should never have been so close.
Young voters came back with a vengeance however in relative terms in 2004, however, inspired by new energy in the primary season on the left with huge youth enthusiasm for Democrat Howard Dean, and apparently also inspired by a deep dislike of George Bush Jr. after his first term (sounds familiar – plenty of echoes like these in 2020.) In that election, despite the Democrats fielding a real compromise dud somewhat like Joe Biden in the form of John Kerry (although he did have some Vietnam War era protest bona fides attractive to some), the youth voted 54-45 in favour of Kerry in an election Bush won by 3 points overall.
Youth voter enthusiasm rose to the highest since 1992 in the 2008 election, when the economy was cratering into the global financial crisis and the Democrats anointed the progressive-seeming African American Barack Obama to lead the way. But with weak control of the Senate in his first two years and no control for the remaining six years of his eight years as President, Obama’s mandate and platform was frustrated at every and youth cynicism grew. After the 2016 primary season, the political energy was all Trump’s as the Democratic youth were devastated by the Democratic primaries booting their man, a real Social Democratic Bernie Sanders, in favour of the most uninspiring of lobby-money grubbing insider of all insiders, Hillary Clinton. And she still won the popular vote by over 2 percent! But the 18-29 youth vote stayed low.
Cue 2020, a real turmoil year for youth, with the Covid-19 devastation and its “k-shaped” recovery hurting the young and basic service job the worst, with rising inequality again as every bailout favours the already wealthy and keeps the young farther and farther away from the first rung of participation in the housing market. Often highly educated and saddled with ludicrous amounts of student debt, the young’s voice seems suppressed by a rigged system and gerrymandered political map and the electoral college in which the rural voter in Wyoming has more than three times more power in the electoral college than a California voter. Young voters will turn up in this election – and they will support Joe Biden because they hate Trump even more than the young voted Kerry in 2004 as they hated Bush Junior.
The practical point: Millennials are the largest US generation
Look at the population pyramid of the US population above – so very different from graying Europe. The largest 10-year cohort is the young 25-34 age group that is ready for change as we note above, and the largest 15-year age group includes those down to 20-24, so the 20-34 year olds. A 20% increase in turnout in these voters (somewhat less than the increase in the 2000 to 2004 election shift), who are far more likely to vote Democratic, (by a more than 2-1 margin for 18-29 year olds) according to one recent comprehensive national poll (page 12) could mean not only a Biden win, but a massive Blue Wave result. Supporting the sheer numbers are some compelling points on the likelihood of a strong turnout among young voters in this CNN article, especially the percentages who are engaged via public protests and the numbers of even “Gen Z” that showed up in 2018 to vote for the first time, helping trigger the massive Blue Wave shift in the House of Representatives.
So despite the bumbling Joe Biden and what could prove an absurdly cautious insider of insiders group of cabinet members in his first two years in office (will he even be able to complete four years?), watch for the progressive left to exercise increasing influence into the 2022 mid-terms. This will especially be the case if my Blue Tsunami scenario obtains on Election Night and administers the Republicans a fatal blow.
The real energy among the Democrats lies at the left of the party and with the youth as we are undergoing a massive generational shift starting already with the 2018 as this Millennial Generation is going to take power – and income and wealth – from the dying Baby Boomers. They have the numbers and the energy and the certitude in the unfairness of their plight to do it.
The progressive left in the US has an inspiring superstar that understands all of the right buttons to press in crafting a message against the establishment, whether on the House floor or on social media just as Trump understands how to communicate with his base via Twitter and at his rallies. Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or AOC and she will be just old enough – by a margin of less than a month – to run for president in 2024, and she is already the odds on favourite to be the next president – not an 82-year old Biden or his VP pick Kamala Harris. Vanity Fair offered a perfectly time profile piece of AOC just this week. The two poles of US politics from here will be AOC on the left and Trump or whoever replaces him on the populist right. There won’t be viable middle next time. If Joe Biden is the avatar for anything, it is that the center can-not hold.
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