Do people get more conservative as they age?
Some people answer this question with a resounding 'Yes!'
Fortunately, we have 40 years worth of Presidential exit polls to use to try to poke around at this question. I say we can 'poke around' because we can't actually get an answer to this question as written using the exit polls, for reasons that will become clear in a bit. But we can answer a more utilitarian variant of this question: Do voters from a specific generation tend to vote more Republican as that generation gets older?
The answer: No.
Below, I've taken all the exit poll data by age and plotted it up. For example, voters age 18-24 in 2008 voted 66% for Obama. This data point can be found as a green hexagon in the upper right-hand corner, at 66% Democratic and birth year 1987. For clarity, only the midpoint birth year is shown for each data point, and not the full age range.
The second thing that immediately jumps out is how 'swingy' voters born before 1940 have been. Join me below for a more detailed look at generational voting patterns, including how (by one measure) Baby Boomers are more Republican than their parents, and a look at how voters from a given generation change over time.
We can roughly reconstruct the support for Democrats of voters from specific generations from the exit poll data, although because the age ranges do not exactly match over time, it's only an approximation. This reconstruction is plotted below for six political 'generations' defined by the President at the time when they became eligible to vote. This is to give some indication of the political events that shaped the voter's (potentially) initial voting experiences. Any president that won reelection has a 'generation' shown below.
The voters from the Roosevelt generation, post-Reagan, were slightly more Democratic than those from the generations that came immediately after it. In 1984, the Eisenhower, Nixon/Ford, and Reagan generations were united and never strayed much from each other afterwards. The singular distinction of the voters from the Nixon/Ford generation, who are all Baby Boomers, is that they gave far more support to McGovern in 1972 than their elders, and slightly more support to Carter. Then we come to the voters from the Clinton and Bush generations - far more Democratic than their elders, something that was readily apparent in the first graph.
So do voters from a specific generation become more Republican over time? Not in the least - the opposite is generally true, in fact - at least over the last 40 years. The only exception is the Nixon/Ford/Boomer generation, which supported McGovern in 1972 at almost the exact same rate as Obama in 2012 - still not more Republican, but not more Democratic either. However, we do see that in the short term this generation did support Reagan to a much greater extent than it did earlier Republicans.
Explaining the data
Three major processes explain most of the variation of these voting generations: realignment, immigration, and participation.
Two of these processes - immigration and participation - I covered in my previous post, which showed that voters within a generation have become more ethnically and racially diverse over time since 1972. The relevant graph can be seen here. Non-white voters in general have been more supportive of Democrats than white voters over the past 30 years, so this explains almost all of the trends seen above from 1984 onwards.
Increasing participation also explains why exit polls can't tell us if individuals within a generation or even the generation as a whole becomes more conservative as they age. Simply put, participation increases greatly as an age group gets older. For example, crude turnout of Baby Boomers increased by about 20 points between 1972 and 2008. It's entirely possible that those who were non-voters when young were more conservative than those who were voters - or the other way around - which would completely foul up any conclusions we might make about the tendencies of individuals or the entire generation. All we can say is that voters from a generation tend to support Democrats more as time goes on. And in the end, this is what matters when it comes to elections, anyway.
The third process, realignment, in this case refers to the Dixiecrat/Reagan Democrat/Southern Strategy phenomenon that was playing out nationally in the 1970s and 1980s (and apparently may still be playing out today in parts of the Upland South and Appalachia). Below we see a graph of support for Democrats in the states of New York and Alabama:
This is all kinda messy...
This is all very well, but the realignment kind of messed up any trends, and immigration won't necessarily continue at the same pace as it has in the future. So to simplify things a bit, here's a graph of just white voters after most of the realignment had been completed. Sadly, I do not have the data available for non-white voters.
We also see less change over time than prior to realignment. This is not to say that the future cannot bring more severe change - only that our current position is pretty stable. (Also recall, when looking at the graph, Perot's substantial share of the votes in 1992.)
Voters from a specific generation do not trend towards Republicans as that generation ages. However, younger voters are far more Democratic than their parents and grandparents, and they're staying that way. Since 1984, there has also been a trend within generations towards support for the Democrat. These two facts are mostly explained by increasing diversity within generations, and greater diversity in the younger generations. To a lesser extent, the youngest generation is also more supportive of Democrats (compared to their parents) for white voters as well. Finally, before 1984, shifting allegiances due to realignment processes resulted in some fairly dramatic swings in voting patterns.