November 21, 2013

JFK torchbearers now vote more Republican

In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” He was referring to the fact that a 43-year-old was replacing a 70-year-old in the White House, but his words were meant to resonate as well with even younger Americans who were just coming of age. Five decades after Kennedy’s death, what happened to those torchbearers? It turns out they vote somewhat more Republican than the general electorate.

Pew Research has tracked vote preference among different age cohorts in the past several presidential and midterm elections and looked at who was president when each cohort turned 18. Does the person who is in the White House when people come of age affect their long-term political leanings? By looking at likely voters from our pre-election surveys, we can see how each age cohort voted relative to the national average.

Compared with the electorate overall, Americans who came of age during the presidencies of Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson offered more support for Mitt Romney in 2012, and more support for John McCain in 2008. (For reference, the Kennedy-Johnson era 18-year-olds were ages 62-69 during the 2012 election.) 

In some earlier elections that we tracked, likely voters from that cohort leaned somewhat more Democratic. But in every election since 2000, those who came of age under Kennedy and Johnson have either voted more Republican or about the same as the rest of the country.

That’s not to say these voters are as Republican as those in the Silent generation, who came of age under Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman — those cohorts vote much more Republican than the rest of the electorate. Likewise, those who turned 18 in the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush years also have voted consistently more Republican in the last several elections.

In fact, it’s the Nixon-era’s 18-year-olds, who were born in the middle of the Baby Boom and were ages 56-61 last election, who are more Democratic-leaning. In 2012, their margin of support for Obama exceeded the national average by 5 points.

Democrats also get a lot of their voting strength today from adults who turned 18 during the Bill Clinton years or after. Adults who came of age under Clinton (who were 30-37 in 2012) favored Obama by 13 points – 10 points higher than the national average. The most Democratic cohort is the generation who turned 18 under George W. Bush or Obama. These voters, who were 18-29 in 2012, favored Obama by 22 points more than the rest of the country.

Time will tell if these younger generations keep their voting patterns as they age. On the one hand, the Greatest generation that came of age under Franklin Roosevelt remained reliably Democratic-leaning throughout their lives. But as the Kennedy-Johnson generation shows, 50 years can change a lot.

Topics: Political Party Affiliation

  1. is a research analyst focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Sebastian Stauch4 years ago

    As a matter of fact there is something called the “impressionable years hypothesis” which essentially argues that the values (and to a lesser extent your partisan affiliations) you have as you come of age (i.e. turn 18) will stay with you (at least for the most part) for the rest of your life. As the data above shows, those who turned 18 during the successful Reagan and unsuccessful Carter administrations have been consistently more Republican than the rest of the electorate while those who turned 18 when the roles were reverse (successful Democratic president in Bill Clinton and unsuccessful GOP president in George W. Bush) are more Democratic than the nation at-large.

  2. Julian Hook4 years ago

    This may be the first study I have ever read at whose point I really do not understand. Instead of saying “Americans who turned 18 in the years 1961-68,” you could equivalently say “Americans who were born in the years 1943-1950,” or “Americans who turned 10 years old in the years “1953-1960,” or “Americans who turned 30 in the years “1973-1980.” This study explicitly links that cohort of people to the years of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for no good reason that I can think of (and no such reason is stated in the article). Unless you can provide some evidence that events around the time of a person’s 18th birthday affect the person’s political outlook more strongly than events earlier or later in life, I am not persuaded of much of anything.

    1. TXSFRED4 years ago

      Mr Hook,

      Possibly they chose President Kennedy to write the article about as we just passed through the anniversary of his assassination. I am a Conservative. Although I wasn’t impressed with all the JFK and Jackie ( Camelot ) adulation…it is true that President Kennedy agreed with Republicans that the way to stimulate the economy was to cut taxes ( not tax and spend ), which leaves more discretionary spending or saving money in the pockets of the earners. I was also interested that it seemed he was not as “gung ho” about sending troops to Vietnam as his advisers were and I wish we had gotten to see if that were true. If it were, it would have saved almost all the names on that black wall in DC and millions of physically and mentally wounded casualties…in a war we were not allowed to win by the same people who sent us. In my opinion, the last war we went full out to win was WW2…so right after The Korean Conflict was when “they” quit fearing us as our own politicians hold us back.

    2. Daniel Secrist4 years ago

      I don’t really get it either. I became eligible to vote in 1976. The spectacle of Nixon’s self-immolating bonfire of the banalities had far more effect on my political views than Ford, or Carter. My entire voting life to date has been a sad regressive serial choosing of whatever seemed like the lesser evil du jour, at least so far as the POTUS elections have been concerned. I don’t see how the loose correlations offered up in this study provide any meaningful insights, in either the pragmatic, or the personal sense.