The shorthand that Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) uses in describing how her party needs to expand its appeal is “WMD,” according to a report from Politico this week. That’s ironic, given the role that putative WMDs played in the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent unpopularity of President George W. Bush. But, in Ernst’s parlance, it refers not to nonexistent weapons but women, millennials and “dudes with beards and tattoos.” W, M, D.

That the GOP might want to re-secure its influence with women, particularly suburban women, is hardly a secret. Women with college degrees, an overlapping group, turned hard against the party in the era of Donald Trump; the overturning of Roe v. Wade certainly didn’t reverse that trend.

But those other two groups are interesting and overlapping. The millennials — a shorthand often just meaning “younger people” — are a group with no shortage of the sorts of dudes Ernst is talking about. It’s a blunt but evocative phrasing: It’s easy to picture a dude with a beard and tattoos who might be persuaded to vote Republican.

It is not clear, though, that either that group or the millennials more broadly ever will be.

The Republican Party has a problem — the same problem it has had for more than a decade. It’s an old, White party in a country where more younger, non-White people are turning into voters. The Trump era of Republicanism exploited America’s unusually large older population, the imbalance in turnout by age and the politics of White embattlement (including the aforementioned demographic changes) to wring out a surprising number of votes. But the party, Ernst included, generally recognizes this can’t last forever.

Polling from the biannual General Social Survey indicates that, in 2021, about a quarter of those older than millennials identified as liberals, while the percentage of those generations that identifies as conservative increases as they get older. But millennials and Gen Z are different, with millennials being 14 points more likely to identify as liberal than conservative and Gen Z 18 points more likely to do so.

(This analysis uses Pew Research Center’s generational definitions: Silent running from 1928 to 1945, boomers from 1946 to 1964, Gen X from 1965 to 1980, millennials from 1981 to 1996 and Gen Z all the rest of U.S. adults.)

This isn’t partisanship, no, but since younger generations are more likely to identify as independent, it’s a more useful (and more accurate, given the available evidence) way to consider how they will vote.

If we overlay each generation’s ideology relative to the age of its oldest members, you’ll see a demonstration of a hoary old bit of conventional wisdom: people get more conservative as they get older. The graph at right below shows how silent generation, baby boom and Gen X members did increasingly identify as conservative (though this conventional wisdom is limited by the relatively short time period for which we have data). This no doubt undergirds Ernst’s expectations. It happened before. Why not again?

The challenge, though, is that millennials aren’t following that pattern. Instead, they’re increasingly identifying as liberal and decreasingly identifying as conservative. (Gen Z has been included in GSS polling for a much shorter period of time, so it’s harder to make assumptions about trends.)

Now we come to the dudes with beards. Maybe, at least, millennial men might be amenable to the GOP’s pitch? In the 2021 GSS data, millennial and Gen Z men were five points more likely to identify as conservative than women in their generation. Gen Z men, though, were much less likely to identify as liberal than Gen Z women — by 19 points! There are caveats here, like that GSS data tends to bounce around a lot (see above) and that the sample sizes for these subgroups are relatively small.

But it comports with other data showing that young men, particularly young White men, are more receptive to conservative or right-wing politics. This is a reason Ernst and others (including Trump) are so explicitly targeting that group.

In addition to the limitations of sample size (that is, that a lot of members of Gen Z aren’t adults yet) here’s an important caveat to the idea that this group will power the GOP in the future: White men make up much less of younger generations than they did older ones. In my book “The Aftermath,” which explores the generational divide and the future of politics, I noted that only about a quarter of those of millennial age or younger are White males, while a third of those boomer age and older fall into that group.

You can see the racial difference in the chart below, taken from the book.

This is why, even if we assume that generations necessarily trend more conservative over time, that isn’t necessarily a fair assumption about the millennials or Gen Z. Those generations don’t look like older generations.

All of this depends on one unfair assumption: that the Republican Party won’t shift to appeal to younger, more diverse voters, as it planned to do before Trump. Ernst’s approach pulls in both directions, with the party’s efforts to appeal to younger voters and women suggesting that the party itself might shift its pitch.

The question then centers on the dudes with beards. If the idea is that those voters will find a party of traditional hyperactive masculinity appealing — the Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) approach, as well as Trump’s — there’s a downside. Much of the party’s problem in appealing to women and young people is rooted in the sort of rhetoric that centers on machismo.

But after losing the popular vote in 2016, the House in 2018, the presidency in 2020 and underperforming in 2022, trying to expand the party’s appeal doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. Particularly considering that, according to Pew data, the shift in the national vote between 2016 and 2020 can be attributed to the decline of voters older than baby boomers and the increase among those younger than Gen X.

That transition — everyone from philosophers to medical doctors will tell you — is an unavoidable one.

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