A Lost Generation for the GOP?

For Republican officials, today’s release of the Harvard Public Opinion Project is nothing short of brutal. The biannual poll of 18-29 year olds shows Trump’s approval ratings clocking in at a measly 30 percent. Congressional Republicans are even more disliked, with just 28 percent of young Americans offering their approval. And only 29 percent of young Americans are willing to identify themselves with the Republican party, while 48 percent align themselves with Democrats. This is America’s future, and it’s looking quite blue.

It is no secret that young Americans, key players in the coalitions of both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, are a left-leaning group. However, Republicans’ failure to make any inroads with them is striking. In light of an emerging body of research that strongly links people’s lifetime political attitudes to the political climate of their youth, Trump’s unpopularity risks solidifying an entire generation’s contempt of the Republican Party.

This may seem hyperbolic, but research suggests that voters are most impressionable at age 18, when they first gain access to the ballot box. When a president is widely respected, young voters will gravitate towards his or her party in future elections, fleeing from it when the opposite is true. This research also suggests that political partisanship begins to harden at an early age, and it becomes far more difficult to change a voter’s political leanings over time. As the New York Times notes, events that occur at age 40 have just one-third of the impact on a person’s political preferences compared to events that occur at age 18. After people’s youth, their party identification essentially becomes an exercise in brand loyalty.

We’ve seen how this has played out in the past. Those who came of age during the depths of the Great Depression were won over by FDR’s leadership and remained a heavily Democratic cohort for the rest of their lives. During the 1950s, first-time voters liked Ike, and most haven’t stopped liking the Republican Party since. And during the economic malaise of the Carter administration, young Americans hitched themselves to the Reagan Revolution and have been a strongly Republican generation ever since.

Against this backdrop, Trump’s unpopularity begins to look even more worrisome for the GOP. For young Americans just entering the electorate, the Republican Party they have been introduced to is one of a deeply unpopular president and an equally unpopular congress. As a result, these Americans will not only be less likely to vote for Republicans in 2018, but also in 2058. And with millennials gradually making up a larger share of the American electorate, these costs to the Republican party will only steepen over time.

To be sure, it is still early in Trump’s term. He still has plenty of time to fix his approval rating woes, and if the economy holds up, he very well might. This poll, though, should be as a wake-up call for Trump and his party. If the president does not rehabilitate his image soon, he risks writing off an entire generation for the GOP.

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