A new USA Today/Rock the Vote poll finds Donald Trump cratering among young voters. By a margin of 56 percent to 20 percent, the GOP nominee trails Hillary Clinton. In a 4-way ballot test Trump gets a meager 18 percent and Clinton 50 percent. Republicans, already wringing their hands over Trump’s damage to the party, now worry he could cost them a generation of young voters. I have a simple message for Republicans. Calm down!
Republican strategists and pols worry that first-time voters pulling the lever for Clinton and Democrats will establish life-long voting habits. Maybe for some. Probably not for many. Why? I can speak from personal experience. Voting for the lesser of two evils does not equal life-long voting habits. I initially favored John Kerry in the first election I ever paid attention to. Now, I cannot imagine voting for a liberal.
Additionally, take the case of our recent elections. Young voters backed Jimmy Carter in 1976 only to deliver big margins for Reagan twice and HW in 1988. In 2000, 18-24 year olds split while just 4 years later they backed John Kerry by 8 points. A mere 4 years later they went overwhelmingly to President Obama and reverted a little bit back to the right in 2012. Obviously younger voters have been trending leftward (the counter-force has been older voters moving rightward) but if young voters preferences are locked in after a single election we would expect to see small, not large, swings among young voters every cycle.
It is also questionable just how much young voters equate Donald Trump with traditional conservatism and Republican orthadoxy. Anecdotally, all I need to do is tune into Facebook for 5 minutes and see most of my young, conservative friends say they are supporting down-ballot Republicans but not Trump. I also witness many young Democrats say they won’t vote for Trump but think he is unique from the GOP brand.
But, don’t just take my anecdotal evidence. The proof is in the polls. In many competitive Senate races across the country vulnerable Republicans are running well ahead of Trump. Take the cases of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. In Florida, Trump trails by 4 percent according to the RCP average of polls. But, Marco Rubio leads his likeliest opponent by almost 6 points. In Ohio, where Trump trails by 2.6 points, Rob Portman leads by a wide margin of almost 6 points. The big question marks for the GOP are New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Trump trails in the Granite State by over 8 points and in Pennsylvania by 9 percent. But, in the New Hampshire Senate race Kelly Ayotte is only behind by a point (largely due to one poll saying she is behind by 10) and Pat Toomey trails by a bit over 2.5 points.
Now, these are all immediate races to be decided in a little over 2 months. But, they do indicate the toxicity of the Trump brand to date. It is notable that the Trump brand is most toxic in only certain areas and that certain Republicans can overcome it. For example, in Florida, Rubio leads among voters under 50 years of age by 11 percent in a recent Monmouth survey. Ironically, Rubio runs stronger with younger than older voters suggesting a new generation of Republicans can appeal to a growing and diverse electorate.
Certainly, if Trump wins it will cause headaches for the GOP going forward. A new Fox News survey finds 61 percent of Hispanics now identify as Democratic compared to 20 percent Republican. But self-identifying polls are fickle and driven more by the political events of the day then long-term trends. It’s true Hispanics and other minorities lean left but whether a vote for Clinton is a vote in perpetuity for Democrats is an open question.
We are in a brand new political dynamic. Never have 2 major party nominees been so unpopular. A vote for Clinton, even among the young, might be more about the lesser of two evils. So, Republicans calm down. We don’t know whether Trump will have a lasting impact on your party or not. Indeed, if he does, we probably won’t know for sure until it is too late.