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Young Republicans are surprisingly moderate — and they could change American politics

A young woman casts a vote in the New Hampshire primary. A new study has found young Republicans are significantly more moderate than their elders, which could have big implications for American politics.
A young woman casts a vote in the New Hampshire primary. A new study has found young Republicans are significantly more moderate than their elders, which could have big implications for American politics.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Republican and Democratic parties have been drifting further and further apart since at least the 1950s. It's easy to believe that this trend will only continue, and that the chronic polarization of the American political system is only going to get worse.

polarization

But there's reason to be optimistic that this long-running trend is destined to soon reverse course.

A new study finds that young people are far less ideologically polarized on policy issues than their elders. Even factoring in how voters change as they age, the researchers found that the youngest slice of the American electorate is by far the least divided — giving us reason to at least hope there's an end in sight for entrenched congressional gridlock.

This is because young Republicans are much less conservative than older Republicans

Piles of research had already indicated that the youngest generation is much more liberal than its predecessors.

But it turns out it's not just that young people are in general more likely to identify as liberal or that young liberals are to the left of older liberals — though both of these phenomena do appear to be true.

It turns out young Republicans are also likely to be to the left of older Republicans, according to a new study from Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego.

Going into the research, Jacobson said he more or less expected young conservatives to be to their parents' left on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration.

But Jacobson said he found sharp splits by age among Republicans on almost every topic, from whether they believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim to whether they listen to conservative talk radio. (Jacobson used a new Gallup data set involving 400,000 responses that he said hadn't been previously analyzed.)

tea party
Young Republicans are much less likely to support the Tea Party than their elders, a new study finds.
(Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

Perhaps just as surprising: Fewer young Republicans are willing to identify themselves as conservative.

Of Republicans who are older than 65, around 70 percent consistently identify as conservative. Meanwhile, fewer than half — about 20 percent — of the oldest Republicans call themselves moderates.

It's a totally different story for Republicans under 30. Among this younger group of Republicans, self-identified moderates and self-identified conservatives are about equal — there's a little above 40 percent of each group.

"It's not just one thing; by almost anything you look at, they're to the left of the rest of the party," Jacobson says in an interview about younger Republicans.

Here are a couple of the other charts showing just how much less conservative young Republicans tend to be:

Young Republicans are much less likely to watch Fox News, believe that Barack Obama is foreign-born or a Muslim, or support the Tea Party.
Gary Jacobson, University of California San Diego
Young Republicans are also more likely to support the Affordable Care Act and be to the left of their elders on issues of immigration, environmentalism, and same-sex marriage.

The "generational imprint" effect and Jacobson's research

One big question is if these trends will hold up as these younger conservatives grow up, have children, and begin paying taxes.

There's reason to believe they will. Jacobson's research is built around a well-known phenomenon in political science known as "generational imprinting" that's been documented since the 1950s.

It's a simple idea: Essentially, young people decide their political identities when they're "coming of political age" — or when they first really begin paying attention to what's going on in politics.

"Partisan identities … are adopted early in adulthood, stabilize quickly, and thereafter become highly resistant to more than transient change," Jacobson writes in a summary of the research. "Political events and personalities have their most lasting influence during the stage in life when partisan identities are being formed."

A voter in Los Angeles County in 2012 Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, this doesn't mean that these voters could never vote for the other party, or that their partisan identifications can't be changed.

But it does mean there's a real stickiness to the political affiliations we form when we're entering young adulthood — and that they stay relatively consistent over decades.

"There's some evidence people will become a little more conservative as they age. But not dramatically," Jacobson says.

His paper adds: "The newly enfranchised cohorts, including those who consider themselves Republicans or independents, are much more moderate or liberal and favorably disposed toward Obama and his policies than their elders, and there is no reason at present to think that this will change any time soon."

Why this is more significant than Sanders's youth mobilization

I called Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has done extensive research on polarization, to see if he thought the apparent leftward movement of young Republicans could spell an end to our growing ideological divide.

"That seems true, but it'd be easy to exaggerate," Abramowitz said. "At some point, I expect the Republican Party to escape the iron grip of their older white conservative base … but it probably is not going to happen in the next four to eight years, depending on this election."

The problem is that even if young Republicans tend to be less conservative, they still make up a very small portion of the party's base electorate, Abramowitz said. Perhaps counterintuitively, the fact that so many young people are Democrats may make it more difficult — not less — to believe Republican politicians will have an incentive to gravitate toward the center.

Still, Abramowitz said the shift was very likely real, and also very likely to give Republican officials a reason to moderate — on a long enough timeline.

"At some point, the Republican Party will have to actually adapt to the 21st century and move back toward the center," Abramowitz said.

Most of the stories this primary have been about the shockingly large generational splits on the Democratic side during this presidential primary, where Bernie Sanders is overwhelmingly beating Hillary Clinton among youth voters.

That's an important trend to highlight. But it may be overlooking that young Republicans also want to pull their party to the left. And that's a move that could have truly revolutionary consequences for American politics.