he baby boomers are coming — and they're about to reshape Florida's political landscape.
"These boomers are very different politically than the previous senior cohort," said Susan Mac-Manus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida who studies generational politics.
As a whole, voters born during the baby boomer generation are generally more liberal than those born in the earlier "Silent Generation" but more conservative than younger "Generation X" and "Millennial" voters. Forty-seven percent of boomers said they were or leaned Democrat in 2014, while 41 percent were or leaned Republican, according to the Pew Research Center.
But the partisan split isn't uniform within the generation. Older boomers, who came of voting age during the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency and Watergate, tilt more heavily toward Democrats than younger boomers, who became voters in the late '70s and during the Iran hostage crisis and Ronald Reagan's presidency.
According to Pew, baby boomers who began voting during the Nixon administration favored President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points, 5 points more than Obama's overall margin of victory. But those voters who turned 18 during the presidencies of Reagan and George H.W. Bush favored Romney by a margin of about 2 percentage points.
In other words, the boomers who have yet to retire are significantly more conservative than those who already have. And seniors are expected to swell from a little less than a fifth of the state's population to a quarter of the total by 2040.
That said, boomers are likely to bring a slightly different brand of Republicanism with them. They, like prior generations, remain very conservative on social issues. For instance, in the latest USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey, the annual poll that surveys Floridians' attitudes about a wide range of issues, 12 percent of respondents ages 55 to 64 said crime was the most important issue facing the state compared to 7 percent overall.
What's more, 71 percent said giving more rights and assistance to undocumented immigrants would be the "wrong direction" for Florida, compared to 57 percent overall. Sixty-two percent opposed repealing the death penalty, compared to 49 percent overall. And 52 percent opposed a law allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their choice, compared to 41 percent overall.
But they are also more liberal in some key areas, particularly relating to the environment: 48 percent of respondents between ages 55 and 64 oppose offshore oil drilling, compared to 42 percent overall. The opposition to offshore drilling was the highest among boomers than any other age bracket.
As they have aged, baby boomers have become less concerned about education policy: Just 3 percent of respondents in the 55-to-64 age range named schools as the most important issue facing Florida, compared to 10 percent overall. That's a potentially ominous sign for counties looking to enact or extend local tax increases for schools in the coming years.
On the other hand, respondents age 55 and older were the most likely in the survey to support raising taxes "slightly" to improve "critical" services and infrastructure: 23 percent, compared with 19 percent overall.
MacManus said it's a myth that seniors, who often are on fixed incomes and who usually no longer have children in schools, are more likely to oppose tax increases for schools. "In many cases, it really depends on whether it's a renewal or a new tax," she said. "Renewals are high. Brand-new taxes are difficult."
And, of course, as older voters become a bigger bloc, the one issue sure to rise is health care. Twice as many respondents in the 55-to-64 age range listed health care affordability as the most important issue facing Florida as the respondents did overall (4 percent to 2 percent).
One group is likely to dilute the boomers' impact on Florida politics: millennials, the one generation that is even larger than the baby boomer generation. MacManus said she expects that millennials, as they become active voters, will offset some of Florida's expected rightward drift as more retirees arrive. The result, she said, may ultimately be an electorate that looks a little like "two different gluts in the python."
"Generational differences will become more evident" in Florida, she said. "What's important to you as a young person is not what's important you as an older person."
This report originally appeared in the December issue of Florida Trend. Go online to FloridaTrend.com.