The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 152012

James Vaughn is a Washington, DC, consultant who specializes in using social media metrics, quantitative tools, and political theory to help clients (good guys only!) assess and improve their reach and influence. He’s a Kennedy School grad and has served with lots of good-government initiatives. I know him through our common affiliation with CSIS.

A couple of days after the election, James sent me the following text and chart, which I am reproducing here as is. Beyond that, I will let him speak for himself. Otherwise, I can only say, I am Neil Howe and I approve of this message…

As someone who incorporates generations theory into my work, I was curious to see how it would predict the actual results of the presidential election. As far back as July 31 of this year, Neil Howe was predicting likely voter preferences by generational cohort. After the election, I compared the results of the exit polls by CNN with Howe’s predictions.

The chart below breaks down the exit polls by age. The first column shows the CNN age group, the percentage of the electorate they comprised, the birth years for this age group, and the generational tag associated with those birth years. The match wasn’t always perfect, but it is close enough for our purposes. CNN had two age charts and I have used a hybrid between the two to make it easier to compare Howe’s predictions with the exit polling.

In the second column, I list Howe’s prediction for how that generation would likely vote. This is taken from his July 31st blog post. The third column is the actual margin of the vote based on the preference expressed in the exit polls. (Columns 4 and 5)

In every case Howe’s predictions closely tracked the exit polling results. The biggest discrepancy was in the Generation X category. Howe predicted First Wave Xers would vote more heavily for Romney than they did. As a first wave Generation Xer, I voted for Obama as did many of my normally more GOP-leaning peers. Our views are more pragmatic about how the fiscal crisis needs to be addressed and put us in Obama’s corner. Howe was spot on with his predictions for Boom and Silent Generations. The outcome for the 65+ category possibly reflects the difference between the 15% preference for Romney being weighed down by the predicted 3% lean for Obama by the G.I. Generation.

The post-election analysis has focused on demographics as destiny with most of the emphasis on the growth in minority populations, but perhaps the greater predictor will be the generational model with the first wave of Generation X serving as the swing demographic in the next presidential election. Political strategists in both parties should add the works of Neil Howe to their reading list as they plan for the next election cycle.

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  • Max Wood

    James and Neil, Is it fair to summarize in a few short words from the last few posts that when you combine the growth of the minority populations and the generational alignment that you all discuss that the trends, at least for the next ten to twenty years, will be in the direction of a stronger centralized government and away from the state/republic model. It seems this is where the electorate body is headed. Actually, I believe that has been the trend since we began this exercise we call America. In fact, that may even be an inherit trait that all humans follow in organizing themselves.

    Your thoughts?


    • pbrower2a

      It could be that neither the Millennial Generation nor the late-wave Generation X has yet to develop a stake in right-wing politics of an Establishment becoming increasingly intolerant, bigoted, ruthless, and rapacious and having nothing to offer but poverty and brutal management in return for “Pie In the Sky When You Die”. One accepts that only when other alternatives lead to a torture chamber or execution pit.

      Generation X may distrust the philosophical posturing of left-wing Boomers, but it could also distrust the moral crusades of right-wing Boomers. What passes for the American Left has much modulated its message since the time of the Weather Underground — a good thing — and become more pragmatic. Much of the content of this Crisis Era is labor-management relations. The Boomer Right and its Silent enablers are loud and shameless in their expression of an inhuman ideology.

      ….People were surprised about thirty years ago when they found that age was negatively connected to political and economic conservatism… when the then-young Michael J. Fox surprised his liberal parents with his pro-business conservatism on Family Ties. Then the Lost were basically off the scene, GIs had created a liberal world, the Silents were conformists, and Boomers were basically split about evenly between liberals and conservatives. In the wake of the right-wing drift of American politics since Reagan and worsening economics for all but elites, Millennial kids heard much griping from parents about new and unforeseen harshness in the workplace. Such griping creates a more unsympathetic view of for-profit bureaucracies from children. Attitudes of children become adult attitudes until those attitudes are refuted — and Big Business and its political lackeys simply confirm in the workplace what children heard at the dinner table from their parents.

  • Confirms the strength of this type of analysis. Good show!

  • JPT

    As much validity as I think there is to studying generations, it’s hard to look at the numbers and see much more than the typical observation that people become more conservative as they age. Boomers, after all, voted heavily for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter when they were in the 18-29 age bracket.

    What is much more pronounced, and much more troubling for the future of the country (not just the Republican Party), is the stark divide in how people voted based on race and ethnicity. Nothing good can come of that kind of division.

    • If that were the case the GI Gen should have gone for Romney, not Obama.

  • Joe

    I agree the generational analysis has predictive power and is relevant. This is so much better than 99% of predictions and prediction models based on historical data out there which are more or less garbage. We were entertained by so much prediction-nonsense again this election cycle it is extremely difficult to select valid signals throughout all the noise.
    Now, the most important question is when and how we unite again as a country and a people towards regeneracy following this noisy and divisive election.

  • Max Wood

    May I suggest an incredibly informative book that will answer your question? It is The Fourth Turning ( by William Strauss & Neil Howe. It was written almost 15 years ago. Nothing else even comes close to defining where we are as a society, where we have been and, more importantly, where we are headed! The book ranks among the top books I have ever read (perhaps the top). Thank you Neil!!

  • neil ridley

    The interesting message coming to me out of this particular election is the mainstream meeja hacks called it wrong, which is a thing nice to see. There is some bloke called Silver getting lots of print space over here in Blighty. It is interesting also to see the decline of interest in democratic process with fewere taking part as nation states become more centralised. We have just had a national plebcite to elect something called a police commisioner (what ever that is) and turn out was 15% , and a byelection for an MP where turnout in a politically active location was 44%. People are completely disengaged in democratic processes, see what the people will do in france if things carry on like this. Our people are so soporifically boiled like frogs they have given up.

  • naturallycurly

    If GenX must be divided into two waves in order to analyze, perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule. Could it be two generational groups, not one?
    I missed the rational for why the group must be analyzed as two separate waves … please point me to to good stuff if you know where it is.

  • Ellie62

    One thing I am curious about:
    Is there any way to break out what’s left of the GI generation voters (i.e, people born 1925 or earlier, who would now be age 87+) from the rest of the seniors? I’d just be curious to know if they voted as heavily for Romney as the Silent Generation, or if there is still a lingering impact of “FDR Democrats” on what’s left of that cohort.

  • Do any of the polls include third parties? I would like to see Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

  • Howard J. Harrison

    Do your election data show more than that America is becoming less white? Can one not attribute practically the entire generational profile of the electorate to the racial profiles of the generations? If the answers are no and yes, as I suspect, then you must properly account for such factors before drawing inferences of the kind you draw from this data.

  • pbrower2a

    Romney lost the pragmatists, and President Obama won because he was more pragmatic. Romney had financial backing behind him that any politician could dream of. Such is the generational angle. Another of course is that the Millennial Generation is the least bigoted generation in American history.

    Barack Obama has shown that he is definitely not a Boomer. He acts much like a 60-ish Reactive… think of Truman or Eisenhower — both near-great Presidents. With the exception of Washington (who defined what the Presidency is and is thus sui generis) he is the best sort of reactive President one could have. He is no rebel, and if he doesn’t go full speed ahead on some Idealist agenda he doesn’t use power to settle old scores. (The worst sort of Reactive leader is the angry, vain character who uses his power to settle old scores — like the fascists and Commie henchmen of the Lost Generation).

    President Obama didn’t threaten anyone’s freedom. He stayed clear of the anti-feminist, anti-intellectual, anti-gay part of the electorate. He also dodged gun control scrupulously until Americans got angry enough to do something about it, and then he jumped on the bandwagon.

    I am going to guess that had President Obama been white he would have won a landslide like that of at least Eisenhower in 1956, which would be 57% of the popular vote and about 420 electoral votes based on his record of achievements. He won, and that counts just as much.

    Now a nice piece of advice for the Republicans — NEVER trivialize rape and its consequences.

  • Thank you man! I like your ideas!