Gen X is not the Trumpiest generation

Last year, journalist Ben Jacobs wrote an essay for Politico offering an intriguing thesis: The generation most enthusiastic about Donald Trump — or, at least, Trumpism — was Gen X.

Jacobs told the story of a musician turned MAGAite, using her journey to represent the generation itself. This was backstopped with analysis from pollsters who supported the idea that the generation that sits between the baby boomers and millennials was more receptive to Trumpian politics.

When polling from Quinnipiac University last week showed that Americans in the X age range were unusually supportive of Trump relative to President Biden in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, Jacobs was quick to point it out. In response, Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin noted generational splits in a recent Marist Poll that also suggested that Gen X is Trumpier than other cohorts.

But it isn’t.

This debate is necessarily sort of silly. Most generational boundaries are gauzy, lacking firm definitions and, more importantly, clear organizing guidelines. Having written a book on the subject of the baby boom and how it differs from younger generations, though, I’m intrigued by Jacobs’s thesis. So I set out to assess the case he makes — a case that my generation is the one most fervent in its support of the former president.

I started by looking at the American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys conducted in 2016 and 2020. These have the benefit of allowing precise measurement of generational support, given that respondents indicate their years of birth in the survey. Matching that to the Pew Research Center’s definitions of generational boundaries (the most commonly accepted delineation) allows us to see how generations voted.

(For the record, Pew puts the “silent generation” at those born from 1928 to 1945. Baby boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, in keeping with the Census Bureau’s boundaries. Gen X is 1965 to 1980, and millennials are 1981 to 1996. Younger adults are Gen Z.)

The 2020 data is obviously more pro-Biden than the actual vote, but that isn’t as important as the pattern. Older voters were more supportive of Trump than younger ones, and the shift to the left as respondents got younger was steady. Gen X does not stand out here as particularly pro-Trump.

(There were too few Gen Z voters included in 2016 for the result to be significant.)

That’s also true of Pew’s own assessments of the vote, assessments that have the advantage of being matched to actual voter records. Here, the generational splits comport more obviously with the actual results — but the same trend from right to left is seen as respondent ages decrease. It’s the oldest Americans (here, the silent generation and those older) who are the Trumpiest.

If we take voting out of the picture, support for Trump still correlates to age. The ANES asks respondents to rate individuals and groups on a 0-to-100 scale, with 100 indicating the warmest feelings. From 2016 to 2020, each generational group’s views of Trump dropped significantly. But in each year, the oldest Americans felt the most warmly toward Trump on average.

So what’s happening with the new numbers from Jacobs and Rubashkin (which is to say, from Quinnipiac and Marist)? Here’s how those polls see a possible Biden-Trump contest in 2024, with results arrayed from oldest to youngest. The result identified by Jacobs as Gen X is indicated with a box, as is the Gen X result from Marist.

In the latter case, part of the explanation for Gen X’s Trump support is the number of members of each generation surveyed. The margin of error for baby boomers — which depends in large part on the sample size — is 5.8 percent. For Gen X, it’s 8.2 percent. It’s unlikely, but those margins mean that 48 percent of boomers and Gen X could support either Trump or Biden.

The issue with the Quinnipiac poll sits in part on how Jacobs drew his line. In 2023, members of Gen X range from 43 to 58 years old — not a clean overlap with his assigning the results of the 50-to-64 age group in the poll to the generation. In fact, about half of the ages included in Gen Z are members of the next age group down, which prefers Biden by seven points.

You can see how the age groups in the Quinnipiac poll (and a recent one from YouGov, conducted for the Economist) compare with generational breaks below. The light gray bars show the age groups broken out in the polls, from oldest to youngest. The dark gray labeled bars show how those breaks compare with generational splits.

The YouGov poll age groups actually overlap more with the Gen X definition — but that second-oldest group is less supportive of Trump than the oldest group.

As I was researching my book, I spoke with a number of political observers and demographers about the interplay of generations. One observed that the relatively small size of Gen X relative to the baby boom meant that it was often simply moving along in the shadow of the boom, drafting on it. After the emergence of the millennial generation — itself quite large — there was a starker split on politics and social issues between older and younger Americans.

Compared with Gen Z, Gen X is pro-Trump. Compared with those in the silent generation and older, it has not proved to be. Stuck in the middle, once again.

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