Cohort analysis is one of the most interesting approaches to poll scrutiny. It assumes that a group of voters in a particular age bracket may hold common views or act similarly in politics, usually because of some shared experience. The best-known cohort may be the “Greatest Generation,” those who fought and won World War II.
Before them was the Depression-era voter. Both of these groups seem to share a sense of frugality regarding government and personal spending and possess a willingness to defer immediate gratification of financial needs.
Another cohort we’ll be watching this November, and long into the future, I suspect, is composed of the “new voters” who suddenly came into the electorate in 2008, all enthused about Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMellman: Rating the presidents Webb: The future of conservatism Moulitsas: Trump’s warped sense of reality MORE and bitter about the Bush years. Were these one-election wonders? Will they come back in a midterm election? Will they be Democrat-leaners for their lifetimes? There is lots of interest in these political newcomers.
In the minority segment of the electorate, we often read of cohort segments. There are the older ethnics who still speak their native tongue in the household; they are very different from the younger ethnics who grew up in America speaking English and being like other American kids. In the African-American community, there is the cohort that “marched with King.” And then there is the cohort that used Martin Luther King’s victories to earn a scholarship to the Ivy League and a job on Wall Street. The old and the new generations are both racial or ethnic minorities, but their very different coming-of-age experiences might produce different attitudes and political behaviors.
My favorite cohort — from an observational perspective — has always been the baby boomers, the lucky ones born between 1946 and 1964. The greatest generation poured their sweat and blood into making things cushy for the boomers, and they have been. Not only has life been easy financially, for the most part, but the boomers have enjoyed being the center of so much attention. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the commercial world doted on the “youth market” as the boomers graduated from school. Publications like Rolling Stone materialized to feed their interests. Fortunes were made (and lost) on conglomerates like the National Student Marketing Corp. As the boomers aged, everything from the culture to politics seemed to bend to their will.
Now, however, it’s not going so well for many boomers. They were among the first to be laid off as companies looked to cut salary budgets. Many are losing what little they saved caring for their own aging parents. Pension plans are folding. Their investments are losing money. There are dark rumors that Social Security benefits will be reduced as the boomer wave hits eligibility. All of a sudden, “the chosen generation” looks to be headed for some tough times. And the cohort may be returning to its roots.
I think it’s important to take into account the formative years of any cohort. In the case of the boomers, this includes the civil rights struggle, Vietnam and rise of the counter-culture. All this worked to instill liberal and Democratic values in most boomers, I believe, even into the hearts and minds of some boomers who might have been Republicans during their middle years. But now I think boomers may be going back to their 1970s roots again. Looking at poll numbers today, I consistently find that boomers are among the most reliable Democrat voters, especially among whites. And as their economic and physical challenges grow as they approach retirement years, I suspect that they will become more liberal, or at least more populist. Both parties will find it challenging, but essential, to address this phenomenon.
David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.