The day after the election, I received an e-mail from my father: “Congratulations to you and your generation. The torch has been passed.”
Obviously he didn’t mean in terms in governance. Although a torch has been passed in that sense, my generation wasn’t the recipient; I’m 26, and Obama is closer to a Baby Boomer than a Millennial (or Generation Y, or whatever we’re supposed to be called). But for all the election of the first African-American symbolized, it also represented perhaps the first collective defining action of an entire generation of young voters who brought about this change, and the political implications should scare the Republican Party into some serious post-election soul searching.
It wasn’t turnout that did it. Voters under 30 increased from 17% to 18% of the total turnout between 2004 and 2008 (about 22% of Americans are under 30)—an improvement, but not a watershed increase. The graph below by Andrew Gelman (H/T to Sullivan) tells the story.
Obama won two-thirds of young voters. But notice the swing. In 2000, young voters supported Republicans at roughly the same rate as the rest of the population, even more so than the oldest voters. In 2004, the shift had begun, and Kerry outperformed Bush, but his 54% of the youth vote wasn’t enough to actually swing the election. Obama improved on that dramatically, and it wasn’t just a matter of the inherent liberalism of youth; if so, Obama’s margins wouldn’t dwarf Gore’s and Kerry’s to that extent.
He produced a gargantuan 25% swing among existing young voters, or those who were sure to vote for the first time anyway.
How big? 18 percent times a 25 percent increase in the Democratic margin equals 4.5 points, or a majority of Obama’s popular vote margin. Had the Democratic 18-29 vote stayed the same as 2004′s already impressive percentage, Obama would have won by about 2 points, and would not have won 73 electoral votes from Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, or Indiana.
So, to clarify here: Obama’s youth margin = 73 electoral votes.
This is what happens when an entire generation becomes politically aware under George W. Bush; we went in evenly split and came out Democrats. And McCain completely failed to adjust his campaign to this fact.
Voters 18-29 didn’t live through the culture wars, so when Republicans sneered about Obama being too liberal, we didn’t respond with the anticipated gut-level aversion—the word’s negative connotations were developed years before our time and its effects have waned. Portraying Obama as a socialist didn’t work either because we have lived most of their lives in a post-Cold War era, and although cognitively most young voters are averse to outright socialism, the term doesn’t produce that gut-level fear that it did with previous generations. Virtually every message McCain and Palin concocted was intended for voters of a different period in history.
But the one thing that did connect with young voters on that gut level is a fear of four more years of George Bush, and that’s in large part why Obama was so effective in holding onto their support. These are people who became politically aware, for the most part, during Bush’s two terms, so their political outlooks have been shaped by the following: Money and lives lost in an unnecessary war, the decline in America’s reputation abroad, infringement of civil liberties, the recent economic crisis, demonizing of gays and lesbians, global warming—those are the issues that we have witnessed, and in each case liberals and socialists weren’t the villains; neoconservatives were.
George Bush has perhaps defined the political outlook of an entire generation, and the one silver lining to the last eight years is that his mistakes made an Obama victory possible. And Obama has coattails. In the House, the youth margin for Democratic candidates was up 18 points from 2004 and 7 points from 2006.
There’s no doubt that Obama’s personal appeal had a lot to do with his success, and some of these younger voters will switch parties as they age and other, less-appealing candidates (the John Kerrys of the party) take the helm down the road. But if Obama’s presidency is marginally successful, this generation is going to compare the Clinton and Obama administrations with the disastrous Bush presidency and perhaps come to some hard-to-sway conclusions about Republican politics.
So here’s what the GOP is looking it: They can either try their best to undermine the success of the Obama administration, or they can retool their platform to appeal to not only younger voters, but Americans across all demographics who have been turned off by the last eight years. Both approaches are already being looked at by factions within the party, and it may take a major civil war within the party for one to win out over the other.
Reform certainly won’t be easy. It will require a recognition that most voters live in urban areas, so this divisive “real America versus fake America” dichotomy has got to end. Republicans will have to realize that voters value more than low taxes, and it will need to come up with feasible solutions for healthcare, education, and the like, and truly incorporate the middle class into its ranks. They’ll have to realize that younger voters are much more socially liberal than their predecessors, so demonizing their gay and lesbian friends or using the same culture war wedges won’t work. And ultimately, the Republican party will have to figure out how to win over minority voters. Statistically, it is a very white party, and demographics will only marginalize it further unless its leaders find a way to win black and Hispanic voters.
I’m certainly not trying to proclaim the end of the Republican party, however. I clearly remember pundits asking in 2002 whether the Democratic party had a future after a major loss, and we clearly have an answer to that today. Democrats will surely lose favor the longer they’re subject to the corrupting influence of absolute power, and the pendulum will eventually swing back in the other direction, as it always does. But the GOP has a lot of work to do if it doesn’t want these 18-29 year old voters to cement their position as Democrats after this election, or another conservative party to take its place.
I’ve never liked the terms “Millennial” or “Generation Y”, and although it is a bit cheesy and may turn out ephemeral, Generation Obama, as of Tuesday, is the best way to describe who we are and how we will be defined, perhaps for a long time.
Cross-posted at Ablogistan.