MISCELLANEOUS OBAMA BLOGGING….This is more a conversation starter than anything else, but I thought there were two especially interesting aspects of Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa on Thursday. Here they are:
Obama won (or tied) among all income groups and among union households. This is really pretty startling considering Hillary Clinton’s supposed strength among blue collar voters (not to mention all those union endorsements she snagged) and John Edwards’ fiery working class populism. Ron Brownstein’s famous column last year dubbing Clinton the “beer track” candidate and Obama the “wine track” candidate got a lot of attention, but in Iowa, at least, that wasn’t true. Turns out that beer-chugging union members like Obama pretty well after all.
The turnout of young voters for Obama has already gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. After the 2006 election I wrote a post that was dismissive of the supposed uptick in youth voting, but a couple of critical emails prompted me to revisit the subject and I ended up changing my mind. It really did seem like there was a significant increase in youth participation, and it was all good news for Democrats.
But beyond the steady shift of youth voting between the parties, the magnitude of the youth vote for Obama within a Democratic caucus was genuinely stunning. Among teens and twenty-somethings he beat Hillary 57% to 11%. Holy cow! And among 30-44 year-olds his spread was only barely less impressive.
What accounts for this? Attitudes toward the Iraq war aren’t substantially different among age groups, so I don’t think that’s it. And policy-wise, as everyone has noted time and time again, there’s not really that much daylight between Clinton and Obama. Is it merely the fact that Obama is a young man himself? That seems too simplistic. Or is it the fact that young people, more than the rest of us, are tired and cynical about politics and really do buy into Obama’s claim that he’s a post-partisan candidate who can end all the nastiness and empty Beltway wrangling?
I’m not sure myself, but it seemed like a good weekend conversation starter. What is it that accounts for Obama’s strength among both blue-collar workers and young people? And can he keep it up in New Hampshire and beyond?
UPDATE: After I changed my mind about the youth vote, I ended up writing an op-ed on the subject for the Omaha World-Herald. I don’t actually know if it ever got printed, and in any case they don’t put their op-eds online. But I’ve stuck it below the jump if you’re curious to see what I had to say. It was written last summer.
Democrats and the Youth Vote
Voters, like other consumers, develop brand loyalties early in life. The World War II generation, which came of age during the New Deal and cast its first votes for FDR and Harry Truman, sustained a Democratic majority for decades. Likewise, the Eisenhower generation that entered the workforce during the fifties remains Republican to this day; the counterculture generation of the sixties and seventies remains a Democratic stronghold; and “Gen X,” the famously angst-ridden generation that started voting in the eighties, continues to vote Republican as it enters middle age.
And today’s youth? Surprise! It turns out it’s a Democratic powerhouse. In the early nineties young voters began shifting rapidly toward the Democratic Party and haven’t looked back since, even after a Republican won the White House in 2000. Today, twenty-somethings lean Democratic by 52%-37%, an astonishing advantage of 15 percentage points. It’s a bigger gap than any other generation currently alive, and it’s already showing up in the voting booth. Last year, not only was turnout was up, but young voters cast their ballots for Democratic congressional candidates by 60% to 38%.
All of this might be no more than a temporary blip if it were caused merely by a combination of George W. Bush’s historically dismal disapproval ratings and dissatisfaction over a grinding, unpopular war in Iraq — both of which will eventually come to an end one way or another. But that’s not what the evidence suggests. After all, the Gen Y movement toward the Democratic Party began in the early 90s, long before either Bush or the Iraq war had taken center stage. What’s more, in a recent New York Times/MTV poll of 17-29 year olds, young people were actually more optimistic about the war in Iraq than the rest of the population. It’s true that they don’t like President Bush much, but the war really isn’t the driving factor.
So what is? The most likely, and ironic, answer is a different war: the culture war that was originally stoked by the Christian Right and then taken up as electoral salvation by Republicans starting in the early nineties. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, famously believed the Christian Right to be the key to victory in 2000 and 2004, and recent Republican leaders from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay have embraced it with open arms.
But young people aren’t buying. Quite the contrary. For the most part, they’re turned off by the sex and gender fundamentalism that animates so much of the modern Republican Party’s social agenda. Polls show that most young voters are OK with abortion remaining legal. They have openly gay friends and are far more comfortable with gay marriage than their elders. They think that legalizing marijuana for personal consumption is common sense, not a sign of moral decay and the breakdown of western civilization.
So when Pat Buchanan declares that there’s “a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America” — as he did in prime time at the 1992 Republican convention — or when Jerry Falwell goes on national television and blames “the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians” for bringing on 9/11, young voters cringe. And when the Republican Party embraces their agenda, they go off to vote for Democrats.
Over the past 20 years Democrats have found themselves consistently on the wrong side of conservative campaigns based on social wedge issues like these. But although these campaigns have produced short-term gains for the GOP, they seem to have done so only at the expense of long-term ruin. A generation that’s more secular, more sexually at ease, and more tolerant is increasingly casting its lot with the Democratic Party and is increasingly showing up at the polls to prove it. And unlike changes in the voting patterns of independents or soccer moms or other favorites of the political sociologists, this change is likely to be permanent. If Gen Y acts like previous generations, keeping its political loyalties essentially for life, it means that the past 20 years have produced a time bomb: an enormous reservoir of new Democratic voters who are just beginning to flex their electoral muscles. 2008 will be their coming out party.