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The case for optimism about the Republican Party’s future

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich giving a high-five to a boy in Maryland, presumably not after winning a state.
Republican presidential candidate John Kasich giving a high-five to a boy in Maryland, presumably not after winning a state.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom about the future of the Republican Party — and not just from liberals.

FiveThirtyEight writes that the party appears dominated by older, whiter voters out of step with most Americans’ politics. The GOP has become an "obstructionist party intent on appeasing extreme forces inside and outside Congress," write scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. At the first day of the Republican National Convention on Monday, party members chanted for Hillary Clinton to be locked up, called President Obama a Muslim, and applauded a "demagogic anti-immigrant message" about Latin Americans.

Does this mean that the Republican Party is stuck on a path pulling it ever further to the right? Despite all the headlines you’ll see this week, there’s at least one key reason to be optimistic: The youngest generation of Republican voters is by far the most moderate in the party.

You may not see much evidence for it in Cleveland, and it may take years to actually influence the party. But if political scientists are right, young voters are poised to change the GOP in a big way — or lead the party to have to throw away the country’s biggest voting bloc.

Young Republicans are much more liberal than their elders

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. Young Republicans are also likely to be to the left of older Republicans, particularly on questions of race and social issues, according to a study released this spring by 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. Using a new Gallup data set of more than 400,000 previously unearthed responses, he found:

  • Close to 60 percent of Republicans over 60 believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. That’s the case for only about 25 percent of millennial Republicans. Similarly, young Republicans are also much less likely to believe Obama was born abroad.
  • Just four percent of Republicans who entered adulthood during the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidency approve of Obama's performance as president. That's compared to close to 30 percent of Republicans who came of age during or since Bill Clinton's administration. (Obama's approval among Republicans rises to close to 40 percent if you just look at those who have entered adulthood in the last few years.)
  • Young Republicans are much more skeptical of the Tea Party and are about a third as likely to watch Fox News.
  • The youngest generation of Republicans is about twice as liberal on a range of environmental questions, and is particularly more likely to believe that global warming is caused by humans.
  • Young Republicans are significantly to the left of older Republicans on immigration and abortion access.
  • More than 70 percent of the oldest generation of Republicans apply the label "conservative" to themselves. That’s only the case for 45 percent of young Republicans.

  • Republicans ages 18 to 29 are about as likely to approve of the Affordable Care Act as the oldest political independents.
  • Even among those who identify as conservative, young Republicans are much less likely to be hostile toward Obama than their elders.

"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.

The generational divide didn’t have a big impact on the primary, but it helps explain why Donald Trump is underperforming with young Republicans in the general election. Jacobson says that, compared to their elders, young Republicans are much more fearful of being lumped in with a party that some think has backwards views on race.

"The party is going to have to moderate, simply through demographic change," Jacobson says.

A "generational imprint": Young voters’ early leanings stick with them through life

Of course, none of this matters if young Republicans grow more conservative when they grow up, have children, and begin paying taxes.

But that’s not expected to happen. 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."

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. Perhaps a surprisingly successful Trump presidency, Jacobson said, could pull them back into the fold.

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.

Why this may be more significant than Bernie 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. 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," he 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 overwhelmingly beat Hillary Clinton among young voters.

That's an important trend to highlight. But it may be overlooking the fact 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.

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