In the last four national elections, generational differences have mattered more than they have in decades. According to the exit polls, younger people have voted substantially more Democratic than other age groups in each election since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006.

The latest national polls suggest this pattern may well continue in 2012. Millennial generation voters are inclined to back Barack Obama for reelection by a wide margin in a matchup against Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who has run the strongest against Obama in many polls. By contrast, Silent generation voters are solidly behind Romney.

In between the youngest and the oldest voters are the Baby Boom generation and Generation X. Both groups are less supportive of Obama than they were in 2008 and are now on the fence with respect to a second term for the president.

One of the largest factors driving the current generation gap is the arrival of diverse and Democratic-oriented Millennials. Shaped by the politics and conditions of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, this group holds liberal attitudes on most social and governmental issues.

In contrast, the Silent generation – whose members reached adulthood between the late 1940s and early 1960s and now make up over 80% of Americans age 65 and older – has held relatively conservative views on social issues and the role of government for most of their lives. Their growing unease, and even anger, about the direction of the country in recent years has moved them further toward the GOP, largely erasing the Democratic Party’s advantage in affiliation.

While the political divides between young and old are deep, there are potential fissures at both ends of the age spectrum. Millennials continue to support Obama at much higher levels than older generations. But Obama’s job ratings have fallen steeply among this group, as well as among older generations, since early 2009. Perhaps more ominously for Obama, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign.

In contrast, Silents – particularly those who affiliate with or lean to the Republican Party – are far more engaged in the presidential campaign than they were at this point in the contest four years ago. While Silents support Romney over Obama by a wide margin, they express highly unfavorable views of both the GOP and the Democratic Party.

Silents prefer the Republican Party on most issues, with Social Security a notable exception. Silents are about evenly divided over whether the Democrats or the Republicans can better handle Social Security. If debate over Social Security and Medicare comes to the forefront, it raises potentially significant cross pressures for Silent generation voters, who rank Social Security among the top issues affecting their 2012 vote.

Growing racial and ethnic diversity, which is concentrated among younger generations, has benefited Democrats. Race and ethnicity are strongly associated with views about government, and in no small part account for some of the greater liberalism of the younger age groups and greater conservatism of older groups.

The polling finds that older generations – Boomers and especially Silents – do not fully embrace diversity. Fewer in these groups see the increasing populations of Latinos and Asians, as well as more racial intermarriage, as changes for the better. For many Silents in particular, Obama himself may represent an unwelcome indicator of the way the face of America has changed. Feelings of “unease” with Obama, along with higher levels of anger, are the emotions that most differentiate the attitudes of Silents from those of the youngest generation.

The nation’s ongoing economic difficulties have affected all generations. But Boomers and Gen Xers are far more likely than either Silents or Millennials to have little or no confidence they will have enough money to finance their retirement. And two-thirds of Boomers ages 50 to 61 who are still working expect to delay retirement because of current economic conditions.

These are the principal findings from two major national surveys exploring generational differences in political attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Sept. 22-Oct. 4) and the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project (Sept. 1-15). Together, these surveys interviewed 4,413 adults. They have been supplemented with data from other polling over the course of the year and analyses of census data by Pew Social & Demographic Trends.

The study provides a detailed look at the current generational dynamics of American politics. Why are Silent generation voters so angry? How have the political leanings of Baby Boomers evolved? Is the Reagan-era Generation X moving closer to the Democratic column? Will Millennials be as engaged and enthused about Obama as they were in 2008? The answers lie in understanding the broad political, social and economic changes of the past decades and how they have shaped the political leanings of these generations over time.

A Closer Look at … Older Americans

The vast majority of Americans who are 65 and older are members of the Silent generation (ages 66 to 83). They came of age in the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years. Silents favored the Democrats at times during the 1990s, but in recent elections have strongly supported the Republicans. While they aligned more with the Democrats in the 1990s, they have become much more Republican in recent years. The Silent generation “replaced” the Greatest generation, who were more reliable Democratic voters when they constituted the bulk of the senior vote.

Silents increasingly call themselves conservative and they hold the most consistently conservative views about government, social issues and America’s place in the world. Unlike other generations that in recent years have become more supportive of smaller government, they have held conservative views about government for years.

Today, an overwhelming majority of Silents are either angry or frustrated with government. They are the generation that is most strongly disapproving of Barack Obama, for whom a majority did not vote. Silents also are the most politically energized generation, as they demonstrated in the 2010 midterms.

More often than the younger generations, Silents take the American exceptionalist view that the United States is the greatest nation in the world. But fewer older people than young people think that “America’s best days are ahead of us.”

The political discontent of the Silent generation is not economically based. A greater proportion of Silents than younger people say they are financially satisfied, and Silents are less likely to say they often do not have enough money to make ends meet.

Race is a factor in their political attitudes. Silents are the whitest of the generations and are the least accepting of the new face of America. Compared with younger generations, relatively few Silents see racial intermarriage and the growing population of immigrants as changes for the better.

As was the case in 2008, racial attitudes are associated with views of Obama and voting intentions. And while there is racial intolerance in all generations, it is more prevalent among older than younger age groups.

While Silent generation voters say they are solidly behind Obama’s Republican challengers, there are some signs of potential opportunity for the Democrats. Silents cite Social Security as often as they name jobs as their top voting issue. And while seniors tend to favor the Republican Party on most issues, they are as likely to favor the Democrats as Republicans on Social Security.

Young People

Millennials, who are 18 to 30, have voted more Democratic than older voters in the last four national elections. They came of age in the Clinton and Bush eras, and hold liberal attitudes on most social and governmental issues, as well as America’s approach to foreign policy.

Just as members of the Silent generation are long-term backers of smaller government, Millennials, at least so far, hold “baked in” support for a more activist government.

Millennials have come of age professing an allegiance to the Democratic Party and profoundly little identification with the GOP. Today, half of Millennials (50%) think of themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents while just 36% affiliate with or lean toward the GOP.

Although they back Barack Obama for reelection by a wide margin in matchups against both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, just 49% approve of his job performance, down 24 points since February 2009.

Millennials are a racially and ethnically diverse generation. Only 59% of Millennials are white non-Hispanic. They are well acquainted with changing face of America and overwhelmingly think these changes are good for the country.

The racial gap also helps explain the greater liberalism of Millennials when compared with older generations. The racial factor, however, mutes rather than explains away the ideological and partisan gaps between Millennials and older voters. For example, while 57% of all Millennials favor a bigger government with more services, just 44% of white Millennials do. But only about a quarter of whites in older generations (27%) support an activist government.

Similarly, while 61% of all Millennials back Obama in a matchup against Romney, only 49% of white Millennials do. But this compares to 37% of older whites who back the president.

For more on Millennials, see Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change, Feb. 24, 2010.

Middle-Aged Americans

Baby Boomers (ages 47 to 65) are the largest generation. They came of age under presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.
Boomers had very little allegiance to the GOP during the 1960s and 70s, but were increasingly drawn to the Republican Party starting in the 1980s. Since then, they have tilted to the Democratic Party.

Historically, there has been an age gap within the Baby Boom generation. Older Boomers, who cast their first ballots in the Nixon elections of 1968 and 1972, have voted more Democratic than have younger Boomers who came of age under Ford, Carter and Reagan. In 2008, for example, Obama performed better among older Boomers (currently 56 to 65) than younger Boomers (47 to 55).

Boomers supported Republican candidates in 2010. Currently, they are almost as disillusioned with Obama as are Silents, yet are divided in a matchup between Obama and Romney.

In recent years, more Boomers have come to call themselves conservatives. A majority of Boomers now favors a smaller government that provides fewer services. When they were in their 20s and 3os, Boomers were more supportive of big government. Today, almost as many Boomers as Silents say they are angry with government.

Boomers’ current attitudes bear little imprint from coming of age in an era of great social change. On most social issues, their opinions generally fall between the Silents and the younger age cohorts. And many Boomers express reservations about the changing face of America.

Like younger generations, many Boomers say they are dissatisfied with their financial situation and their anxieties about retirement have increased. In a survey conducted last year, a majority of Boomers (54%) said they were in worse shape financially than they were before the recession. Today, 38% say they are not confident that they will have enough income and assets to last through their retirement years.

Like other generations, Boomers oppose cutting entitlement benefits in order to reduce the budget deficit. They are also part of a multi-generational majority that supports reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors with higher incomes. However, unlike Silents, Boomers oppose raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.

Generation X, ages 31 to 46, is the in-between generation. They represent the dividing line on many issues between young and old, but they are not as Democratic and liberal as the younger Millennial generation.

Gen Xers mostly came of age politically in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton years. In the 1990s, they divided their loyalties between the parties. In 2000, they split their votes between George W. Bush and Al Gore; they narrowly supported Bush in 2004 and favored Obama by clear margin in 2008.

Gen Xers are less supportive of larger government than they once were. And along with other generations, their views of Obama have become more negative. Gen Xers supported GOP candidates by a small margin in 2010. Currently, as many Gen Xers favor Romney as Obama.

On a range of social issues Gen Xers take a more liberal position than do older voters. Gen Xers are more likely than both Boomers and Silents to favor gay marriage and marijuana legalization, and Gen Xers are far more comfortable with the social diversity of 21st century America.

As with Millennials and Boomers, jobs are the number one voting issue for Gen Xers. And they are increasingly anxious over their financial futures. Fully 46% say they are not confident that they will have enough income and assets to last through their retirement years – the highest percentage in any generation.

Entitlements: Agreement on Principles, Not Policies

The poll finds a fair amount generational agreement on entitlement issues. Majorities across generations say that the federal government does too little for older people. And there is broad agreement that it is more important to maintain current retirement benefits than to reduce the budget deficit, though that view is more widely shared among older than younger generations.

But wide generation gaps exist with respect to a number of proposed reforms to the retirement programs. Silents are lukewarm toward allowing younger workers to invest their Social Security taxes in private accounts and using their Medicare benefits to purchase private insurance. Millennials, in particular, enthusiastically embrace these proposed changes.

Moreover, Silents are more supportive than are younger generations of gradually raising the retirement age for receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits. Roughly half of Silents favor raising the retirement age for these programs; no more than four-in-ten in younger generations agree.

Generational Voting in Red and Blue

One way to look at the political leanings of generations is to sort people by the political environment when they became politically engaged. For example, not so long ago, voters 65 and older were predominantly members of the Greatest generation, most of whom came of age during FDR’s presidency and were fairly reliable supporters of Democrats even into their later years.

As recently as 2004, members of the Greatest generation supported John Kerry by a greater margin than did all voters in that election.

As the Greatest generation has mostly passed from the scene, members of the Silent generation – most of whom came of age politically during the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies – have come to make up an increasing share of voters 65 and older. They have long voted less Democratic than the Greatest generation; in both 2008 and 2010, both Truman- and Eisenhower-era Silents voted more Republican than average.

The Baby Boom is a long generation, spanning many presidencies. The oldest, who turned 18 when LBJ was president, have mostly voted with the national electorate in recent years, though they voted more Republican than average in 2008. Those Boomers who came of age when Nixon was president retained a Democratic leaning, although they have voted with the overall electorate since 2006. The youngest Boomers, who mostly came of age in the Ford and Carter years, have been one of the most reliable Republican voting groups.

Internal divisions within Generation X are even more notable. The older portion of Generation X who came of age during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, have voted more Republican than the electorate. In contrast, younger Xers, who became active politically during the Clinton administration, have mostly voted more Democratic than average. Millennials largely came of age during George W. Bush’s presidency and have consistently voted more Democratic by large margins.

Best President in Your Lifetime?

When asked which president has done the best job in their lifetime, more respondents name Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan than any other presidents. Sizeable numbers in each of the four generational groups, including majorities of Millennials and Gen Xers, cite Clinton as either their first or second choice as the best president. Reagan matches Clinton in mentions among Baby Boomers and members of the Silent generation.

Despite the fact that many of them were quite young during Clinton’s years in office, nearly half (48%) of Millennials say Bill Clinton did the best job of any president in their lifetime. Another 12% cite him as second best. Fewer Millennials (37%) cite Obama as best or second-best. Relatively few (22%) say that George W. Bush was a favorite.

A majority of Xers also named Clinton as best (38%) or second-best (18%), while 43% cite Reagan (34% as best, 9% as second-best). Just 23% of Xers say that Obama is the best or second best president of their lifetimes; 18% cite George H. W. Bush and 14% cite George W. Bush.

Baby Boomers divide their loyalties about evenly between Clinton and Reagan, with 45% citing Reagan in either first (33%) or second (12%) place. About as many name Clinton as the best president (27%) or second-best (15%). About a quarter of Boomers (26%) cite John F. Kennedy.

Only among the Silent generation do presidents in office before Kennedy receive a significant number of mentions. But even among this older group, Clinton and Reagan are essentially tied for the top positions. Reagan is cited by 36% and Clinton by 35% as best or second-best. Kennedy is mentioned by 29%, Dwight D. Eisenhower by 17%, and Harry S Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt are named by 11% and 12%, respectively.