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Red vs. Blue Political Divide May Really Be About Young vs. Old

The divided opinions on Donald Trump’s presidency are well-known, but the gulf between millennials and baby boomers may be most important.
NBC News

The divided opinions on Donald Trump’s young presidency are well known, but the gulf between those in the millennial and baby boomer age groups are stark and may hold the biggest long-term political impact.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows millennial voters (18-34 years old) strongly opposed to Trump on a long list of issues — from his job performance to his executive order on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Meanwhile, baby boomers (55-70 years old) are among Trump’s staunchest supporters.

Consider the numbers for Trump’s job approval.

Or look at the stances on Trump’s temporary travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.

There are also pronounced divides on whether the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, is a “good idea” or a “bad idea.”

Some of those divides may be associated with the larger split on Trump. In November’s presidential exit polls, Hillary Clinton comfortably won voters younger than 45 years old (by 14 points) and Donald Trump won voters 45-and-older (by 8 points). These generational differences may simply be showing that those who voted for or against Trump are taking positions in support of or opposition to the president.

After all, Trump’s executive order on travel, and the way it was rolled out, was so directly tied to the president that it’s probably hard for people to separate the order from the man. And Trump has made so many direct and negative comments about the Affordable Care Act that it may have gained in popularity among some supporters of former President Barack Obama.

But the generational splits in the latest poll seem to go deeper than that and extend into territory that is less explicitly political. For instance, on the question of whether trade with foreign countries has helped or hurt the United States, the divide is very noticeable.

Millennials are big free traders; baby boomers are not.

With numbers like those, millennials and baby boomers don’t just look like different age groups; they look like they come from very different Americas — and in many ways they do.

Some of the differences:

Millennials are a much more diverse group of people in the poll, only 62 percent are white and non-Hispanic. Among baby boomers, 78 percent are white and non-Hispanic. Millennials in the poll tend to be much more likely to live in urban places (40 percent) compared to baby boomers (21 percent of them live urban places). And millennials have higher levels of educational attainment, 37 percent in the poll have at least a bachelor’s degree. Among baby boomers that figure is 29 percent.

Those differences may also help explain why the two age groups have different attitudes towards Trump’s executive order. And it may help explain differences in opinion on free trade. Millennials are more likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree and those with a bachelor’s tend to be less threatened by the job displacement associated with trade.

Why does this all matter? Because the politics of today is always setting up the politics of tomorrow.

The first divisive month of Trump’s presidency looks like it is very much a baby boomer affair. And with policies and the support he is getting from the Republicans in the House and Senate, he is pulling the Republican Party onto that track as well.

That may be a prescription for short-term success for the president and the GOP. But in the longer term, the future of the country belongs to millennial voters and they don’t see a lot to like in the president and his policies.