Democrats Win as Youth Avoid Politics via Elected Office
In the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama, 51, represents the youth movement.
Though Republicans have been undergoing a period of self-examination after losing the White House, questioning their policies and the quality of their candidates, Democrats have their own void: a shortage of rising stars.
The younger voters who helped deliver Obama two terms aren’t reflected in the makeup of the party leadership. So far, the two most frequently mentioned successors to Obama in 2016 are Hillary Clinton, 65, and Vice President Joe Biden, 70.
The top Democrats in Congress, Senators Harry Reid of Nevada, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina have an average age of 70.
Of the 20 Democratic governors, the mean age is more than 60; the youngest is Montana Governor Steve Bullock, 47. In state legislatures where they have majority control, 70 percent of the members are older than 50, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. In the mayor’s office in nine of the 10 largest cities, all held by Democrats, the average age exceeds 50; San Antonio’s Julian Castro, 38, who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, bends the curve downward.
The composition of party leadership matters because only once in the last 60 years -- when Republican Ronald Reagan, 69, defeated Democratic President Jimmy Carter, then 56, in 1980 -- have voters chosen a presidential candidate from an older generation.
“Seldom does an electorate jump back a generation in selecting a president,” said Stuart Stevens, who was a strategist for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “In presidential races, the least experienced candidate tends to win. It’s odd but true. Americans tend to be drawn more to potential than performance.”
Youth has often been an animating force in politics, particularly for Democrats, propelling the presidential candidacies of John F. Kennedy, elected at the age of 43 in 1960; Bill Clinton, who was 46 when he won in 1992; and Obama, 47, in 2008.
While the president was able to generate enthusiastic turnout among voters ages 18 to 29 to help him win two White House terms, his party has yet to see that excitement translate into a new generation of young Democratic elected officials. Obama defeated Romney 60-37 among young voters, who made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012, according to exit polls.
Republicans can point to Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, each 42, or Representative Paul Ryan, 43, of Wisconsin, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, as having the potential to run for national office. Ryan also joined other House leadership members Kevin McCarthy, 48, of California and Eric Cantor, 50, of Virginia in writing the 2010 book “Young Guns,” contrasting themselves with Democrats.
Democrats have the three youngest members of the Senate in Senators Chris Murphy, 39, of Connecticut; Brian Schatz, 40, of Hawaii; and Martin Heinrich, 41, of New Mexico, yet none has the profile of their Republican peers.
Paul Begala, who helped manage Clinton’s campaign in 1992, said that a candidate’s ideas matter more with voters than chronological age. Young voters backed Obama because of his policies on immigration, same-sex marriage and environmental issues in addition to his inspirational appeal.
“Bobby Kennedy said youth is ‘not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease,’” Begala said.
Kennedy, who delivered that memorable thought while speaking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, was 40 at the time, and those words were preceded by “Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth.”
The issue of age for Democrats extends from Washington to the states. In 2010, Republicans made a net gain of six governor’s races, giving the party a much larger pool of talent for future bids for national office. Since 1976, four governors have been elected president, while Obama was the only one elected directly from Congress, and the first since John Kennedy.
The Republican bench of younger governors includes Bobby Jindal, 42, of Louisiana; Nikki Haley, 41, of South Carolina; and Scott Walker, 45, of Wisconsin.
When the Democrats were in their own soul-searching period after Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, the Democratic Leadership Council was formed and its members included numerous governors and members of Congress whose common trait was their comparative youth in their 30s and 40s.
Among them was Clinton, then governor of Arkansas; Al Gore, who became a Tennessee senator in 1986 at age 38; Evan Bayh, who at 32 was elected governor of Indiana in 1988; and Ray Mabus, 40, the governor of Mississippi.
At that point, the party was undergoing a transformation of ideas, embracing a tougher approach to crime, reducing welfare and cutting taxes. At the same time, it was making a generational pivot that led to Clinton’s election in 1992 in a campaign that featured him and Gore as the portrait of Baby Boomer youth and energy.
“National leaders more often come from ranks of governors rather than congressman,” said Bayh, who chose not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010. “That’s particularly true with Congress having single-digit approval ratings. When you look at governors, we are suffering a hangover from the 2010 Republican landslide.”
Bayh said his party has clear advantages in both Electoral College math and the sentiments of young voters. “Young voters are looking for young ideas,” he said.
At the same time, a party’s strength isn’t determined simply by whether it holds the White House or a governor’s mansion, and Democrats “have a potential problem in Congress if only because potential leaders haven’t been given the opportunity to move up,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a former Republican consultant.
“Watching the Democratic congressional leadership is a little like watching the British Royal succession,” he said.
Voters use presidential elections “as an opportunity for course correction,” he said. “They look for the greatest perceived flaw in the incumbent and try to fix it. So when a Kennedy or a Clinton gets elected, it’s at least partly because of a perception that their predecessor represented a previous generation.”
As such, he said, voters aren’t likely to want a younger candidate after Obama.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he thought Clinton would be the likely Democratic nominee in 2016 and that if she didn’t run, Biden would seek the White House.
For their part, younger voters may be choosing a path to serve other than elective office. John Della Volpe, who has specialized in polling younger voters for more than a decade at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said “unlike a generation ago, young progressive people have more ways to get involved in public policy and more options than ever before.”
Those same people, he said, have such a low level of trust in most leaders in the nation’s capital that “I am less optimistic that this generation will make a mark in Washington, D.C. or the more traditional ways of government.”
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