Saturday, April 27, 2019

North Carolina's Voter Trends: A Shifting Electorate In 2018

Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report about the impact of young voters on the 2018 mid-term elections.

The Census report documented that turnout among 18-29 year olds went from 20 percent in the previous mid-term election (2014) to 36 percent in 2018, "a 79 percent jump," the largest increase among any age group.

In thinking about the Old North State's electorate in the 2018 mid-terms, a similar pattern emerged as well among young voters. But instead of looking at age ranges as the U.S. Census does, I broke the electorates into their respective generational cohorts, and then analyzed several different aspects for who showed up in the 2018 'blue-moon' election in North Carolina.

First, the generational cohorts, as defined by the Pew Research Center:

  • Generation Z: Those born after 1997, so in the voter pool, voters who were 18-21 years old.
  • Millennials: those born between 1981 and 1996; voters who were 22-37 years old.
  • Generation X: those born between 1965 and 1980; voters who were 38-53 years old.
  • Baby Boomers: those born between 1946 and 1964; voters who were 54-73 years old.
  • Silent/Greatest: those born in or before 1945; voters who were over the age of 74 years old. 
Within the state's registered voter pool as of November 2018, the breakdown by generational cohorts and party registration was:

For the 2018 general election, a plurality of the voter pool were voters under the age of 38, with registered unaffiliated voters being the largest segment of registration: for Millennials, 40 percent were registered unaffiliated, compared to 35 percent registered Democratic and 24 percent registered Republicans. For Generation Z, the newest cohort coming into the electorate, 46 percent registered as unaffiliated, with 30 percent as Democrats and 22 percent as Republican. This has followed a general trend of younger voters eschewing party labels, but not necessarily indicating a lack of partisanship in their voting behavior. 

Generation X bridges the younger and older cohorts and almost mirror the state's registration percentages: 36 percent Democratic (compared to 38% state-wide), 33 percent unaffiliated (compared to 32 percent state-wide), and 31 percent Republican (compared to 30 percent state-wide). 

Baby Boomers and Silent/Greatest generations (those over the age of 54 in 2018) more much more likely to register with the two parties: Boomers were 41 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican, and 25 percent unaffiliated, while the Silent/Greatest generations were 46 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican, and 20 percent unaffiliated. Of course, it is important to note that in Southern politics, and especially in North Carolina, registered Democratic among older voters does not mean a Democratic voter. If the voter is an older, white, rural registered Democratic voter, they are more likely to be a Republican voter. 

In looking at who showed up for the 2018 mid-term election (and remember, this was an election with no major state-wide race, such as governor or U.S. Senate seat), the generational breakdown shows a stark comparison to the two previous mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014, especially when it comes to younger voters:

As is the norm in political science research, older voters have higher voter turnout (VTO) rates than younger voters, but as you watch the generational cohorts over the past decade, the younger voters trend in a higher pattern of turnout, especially if you look at presidential years (2008, 2012, and 2016) separately from mid-term years (2010, 2014, and 2018).

Millennial voters went from just 15 percent VTO in 2010 to 19 percent in 2014 and 33 percent in 2018, jumping 14 percentage points from the last mid-term election and slightly under the national average of 36 percent. But again, it's important to stress--there was no galvanizing state-wide race like in other states. For young voters, there was something engaging them into an election that only saw congressional elections as the major highlight of the campaign battle. 

For Gen Z voters, while they are just beginning their entrance into the electorate, to see a VTO of 31 percent is impressive as well. 

To give a comparative sense of how each generation was represented in the overall electorate since 2008, here is the percentage within each general election by generational cohorts:

For Millennials since 2008 in presidential years, they saw a six percentage point increase from election to election in their VTO rates; in mid-term elections, their VTO increased from 7 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2014 and then to 17 percent in 2018. For 2020's presidential election, if the pattern holds of six percentage points increase in Millennial VTO, voters between the ages of 24 to 39 would be nearly thirty percent of the electorate. Gen Z voters would be between 18 to 23 in the presidential election, and so a combined Millennial & Gen Z slice of the electorate could well be over a third of the votes cast, rivaling Boomers, who have been decreasing two percentage points in presidential elections for their electorate percentages since 2008 (41 percent in 2008, 39 percent in 2012, and 37 percent in 2016). The oldest voters, those of the Silent & Greatest generations, may see their presence slip to single digits, having lost five percentage points in each election's electorate composition since 2008. 

I then analyzed among the VTO rates for all of the party registration categories, and then for the two youngest cohorts VTO rates by party registration for the 2018 mid-term. First, for the state-wide VTO party registrations:

And then, for the Generation Z and Millennial generations:

As is normal in North Carolina voter turnout rates, partisan registered voters tend to have higher VTOs than registered unaffiliated voters. It is also the pattern in Old North State voting trends that in mid-term elections, registered Republicans have the highest VTO among the party registration categories. But among the two youngest generation cohorts, registered Democrats saw a higher turnout rates than Republicans. Among Gen Z, a two percentage point advantage (35 for registered Democrats to 33 for registered Republicans), while Millennials saw a one percentage point advantage (36 percent for registered Democrats to 35 percent registered Republicans). Both generations' unaffiliated voters had a lower VTO rate.

Next, I looked at the state's party registration statistics, both for the total registered voter pool as of November and for the voters who showed up and cast ballots in the mid-term election; then, by each generational cohort.

First, the state of North Carolina's voter registration pool, at the time of 2018's mid-term election, was 38 percent registered Democrats, 32 percent registered unaffiliated, 30 percent registered Republicans, and one percent registered all other parties. But the 2018 electorate was slightly different:

Democrats slightly over-performed their state average by one percentage point, Republicans by three percentage points, and unaffiliated voters underperformed by four percentage points.

Then, by generational cohorts, starting with Boomers:

Boomer voters were very close to be representative of their overall party registration figures in the voter pool.

For Generation Xers, it was slightly more Republican and less unaffiliated in the electorate than in the overall voter pool:

For Millennials, more registered Democrats showed up (by two percentage points), and fewer unaffiliated voters (down three percentage points), with Republicans only one percentage point above their registration composition.

And finally, for Generation Z, registered unaffiliated voters saw a six percentage point decline from their voter pool numbers, but registered Democrats saw a five percentage point increase over their voter pool percentage, while registered Republicans increased two percentage points.

While younger voters are flocking to register unaffiliated, it needs to be stressed that registering 'independent' does not mean that they are independent voters. Along with numerous political science research, the Pew Research Center published a recent analysis of political independents, finding:

"the reality is that most independents are not all that 'independent' politically." 
(emphasis added)

If 2018's North Carolina mid-term election demonstrates anything, it is that younger voters were indeed motivated to participate at higher rates than what a typical mid-term election would see, and that while we don't know if registered partisans cast their ballots in a partisan manner (a study for another time), it would seem logically that in this hyper-polarized environment, if you are registered partisan and a below-40 years old voter, you will likely be a reliable party voter.

The 2020 presidential election will be one to test a key notion of North Carolina's electorate: will the tectonic shift among the generations jolt the Old North State's voting patterns?