It’s become a truism this year that Barack Obama maintains a unique hold on young voters. David Ignatius has written that Obama “is really the bow wave of the next generation now rising in politics.” Authors Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais have declared that “the contagious enthusiasm of Millennials for political participation [as evident in Obama’s campaign] will have an opportunity to reshape every state’s political landscape just as much as the GI generation and FDR’s infectious optimism changed America 76 years ago.” Time asserted that Obama’s appeal to the young showed that this election would be “the year of the youth voter.”
None of these claims is new. Secular liberals have long exalted young people, students especially. In 1968, the coming of age of the baby boomers was said to herald an era of “new politics.” In the early 1970s, Fred Dutton, Bobby Kennedy’s campaign manager, urged Democrats to pursue the boomers or else squander “one of the great . . . opportunities in American politics and history.” In 2004, John Kerry told young people at a Rock the Vote event that “we’re counting on you” to defeat President Bush.
Each of those claims was a stretch. So then, should we believe similar claims now made on behalf of Obama? The recent historical record suggests: probably not. Yet it’s possible to envision a scenario in which they do prove true.
In one important respect, Obama’s bond with young voters is different from that of previous Democratic candidates: His appeal is not primarily ideological. The campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Howard Dean were each driven by their opposition to a war. While their ideological stand helped woo Democratic primary voters, it alienated older voters.
McGovern’s 1972 campaign was the classic example. At one holiday rally, two young people — one of whom was wearing only an American-flag bikini — marched to the front of the procession and stole the spotlight. (“This,” McGovern thought to himself, “is not helpful.”) While McGovern nearly won the votes of those 18 to 29, he lost badly among every other age group.
Yes, Obama is running to the left of Hillary on the war. But his main appeal to young voters is emotional and spiritual. His bond with them is similar not so much to Jack Kennedy’s — with whom JFK’s daughter, Caroline, famously compared Obama — but to Bobby Kennedy’s appeal among blacks and Hispanics. In his concession speech after the New Hampshire primary, the former community organizer invoked the refrain “Yes, we can!” which was the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers, whose president, Cesar Chavez, was Kennedy’s brother in arms.
Obama’s unique bond with young people could help him in November. Because he need not pander to them, he would not automatically turn off their older counterparts, especially white working-class and Catholic voters. His appeal is — yes — a win-win.
Obama’s appeal to the young helps rather than hurts him. But Obama cannot expect young people to deliver him the presidency, to “reshape the political landscape” this fall. To achieve that feat, he would need to overcome two political laws.
The first law is that young voters are notoriously fickle. They might vote; then again, they might not. Fred Dutton in the McGovern campaign found this out the hard way. “What surprised me,” he told me in 2003, “was that young people didn’t vote until they were 35.” John Kerry learned a similar lesson. While Kerry won 56 percent of the youth vote, young people voted in the same numbers as they did in 2000, and this was despite a massive registration drive by progressives. Obama’s strategists may have already concluded that the youth vote is limited. On Super Tuesday, Obama’s strength among young voters was trumped by Clinton’s appeal to older voters. As Ronald Brownstein explained in a post-election analysis:
In each of those states, and almost all of the other major contests on the board, seniors over 60 cast a larger percentage of the vote than young people did. And those voters almost invariably preferred Clinton: She won seniors everywhere except Illinois, Georgia, and Connecticut. In hotly contested states such as Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, Clinton won about three-fifths or more of the vote among seniors.
The second law is that registering young people is not nearly as important as wooing swing voters. For every person who switches his or her vote, a candidate must register two new voters. The McGovern campaign was obsessed about registering young people, to the point of plastering on its walls the figures of each state’s young voters. In so doing, they forgot to appeal to undecideds. Kerry’s strategists did the same.
Perhaps Obama can break one of those political laws, or both. If he wins his party’s nomination, the 46-year-old stands a shot against the 72-year-old John McCain. Even so, Obama would need to find a bloc of voters outside his coalition of blacks and yuppies.
But the history of the post-1968 Democratic party suggests that Obama would struggle in wooing a new constituency. The national party has pursued the votes of young people, minorities, and liberated women first and foremost — and those of the white working class and Catholics second, if at all. As a result, only two of the party’s last seven presidential nominees have won. Obama could be the third winner, but he will need more than hope.
– Mark Stricherz, a writer for GetReligion.org and InsideCatholic.com, is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.