New Days vs. Old Ways

Could the age gap trump race and gender?


Every exit poll conducted to date in the presidential primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama indicates a generation gap separates the two candidates. Obama attracts an overwhelming number of voters age 18 to 30; Clinton dominates the over-60 set. This trend holds in states as diverse as South Carolina-which Obama carried by 28 points, but where Clinton still out-polled him among seniors, 40-32 percent-and California, where Clinton won handily, but Obama tied her among the youth vote. In Virginia on February 12, Obama routed Clinton by 29 points. In the process, he trumped her in nearly every voter group, including women and Latinos by large margins. Clinton was competitive, according to exit polls, in only one category: voters 60 and up.

The reasons behind this split have almost nothing to do with the candidates’ ideology. They have virtually identical voting records and policy proposals. How each candidate packages those positions-how they sell themselves-is vastly different. Clinton, 60, would continue a 16-year run of baby boom leaders. A Clinton speech is packaged pragmatism: a list of the problems she sees in the country and the way she wants to solve them. She’s selling experience and competence.

Obama, 46, would be the first president from the post-boomer generation, whose politics weren’t forged in the 1960s and the fights over the Vietnam War. An Obama speech is an appeal not just for “change,” but to join a movement. In his addresses, he always recalls the accomplishments of the so-called greatest generation during World War II and the baby boomers in the 1960s, then he proclaims that now is “our moment,” “our [generation’s]” turn to make its mark. As he put it the night of Super Tuesday, “Our time has come.” He is explicit about his hope to “change the world.”

Is it any wonder, then, that older voters would support the candidate who scoffs at lofty talk of changing the world and who instead pitches practicality? Or that young voters would flock to the candidate who taps their idealism?

At first glance, this appeal to youth would appear to be a perilous strategy, since young people don’t vote in the numbers that older people do. And yet in this primary season, that historical pattern has been broken. With encouragement from the Obama campaign, young people have turned out in record numbers.

“Obama not only put faith into us, he put resources into us. He believed in us,” said 20-year-old Nick Hudson, from Willis, north of Houston, the volunteer state director for Students for Barack Obama.

Obama Austin

Volunteer student organizers, with help from the campaign, have put together 27 Students for Barack Obama chapters at Texas colleges and high schools, including groups at Texas A&M-College Station, SMU, and Baylor University. Hudson said he used social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to identify and reach out to students at far-flung campuses. (There’s also a Toddlers for Obama group; we imagine a press release in crayon will be forthcoming.)

Clinton campus groups in Texas seem to be few. Deirdre Murphy, the Texas spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, refused to disclose the number of campus groups supporting the New York senator. “I just don’t think we’re going to talk about the numbers, but I think it’s safe to say we have a really strong network with chapters on many campuses,” Murphy said.

“When [Obama] talked about America, we saw reason to hope again,” said Bryan Mathew, the UT-Austin chapter coordinator for Students for Barack Obama.

Young Obama enthusiasts repeatedly talk about bypassing the struggles and preoccupations of the baby boomers, exemplified in their mind by the Clintons. While most said they would vote for Clinton if she becomes the nominee, few said they would actively campaign for her.

“I think Hillary is bogged down in the fights of the baby boomer generation,” argued Dylan Moench, a 33-year-old Austin attorney, during a break from phone-banking. “There’s a sense that we’re ready for a generational shift.”

There are exceptions to the generation gap, of course. Some older voters avidly support Obama, and there are young voters working for Clinton, but the exceptions seem to prove the rule. On a Tuesday night in mid-February, Mark Noble and Liane Ngin, both 22, held a phone bank event for Clinton in their North Austin apartment. The turnout was sparse. Only a handful of twenty-somethings showed up. Sitting at their dining room table, the recent University of Texas graduates were chagrined that so few folks were there. They invited their friends, except “[e]veryone I know is supporting Obama,” Ngin said. “Otherwise they’d be here.”

Clinton San Antonio

The next night, at a Clinton rally at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, the older folks were out in force. Seated in the front row clutching blue “Hillary for President” signs were Alice Cipriani, Brenda Calderon Bennett, and Otilia V. Lozano. The women had come to the speech together. Cipriani and Lozano will both turn 80 this October. They plan to celebrate together with a “birthday club” of 17 older women. They all like Obama but find him too inexperienced. “There’s no comparison,” Cipriani said. “He’s too young. He’s got a lot to learn. She’s the better candidate. We’re old, but we’re backing her up 100 percent.”

Lozano, a former teacher, smiled at the enthusiasm of the younger voters. “It’s the cool thing,” she said. “They’re just following the crowd.” Lozano finds Obama’s rhetoric a little naive. “I don’t know that he has what it takes to get things done in Washington. She knows her way around Congress. Obama can say, ‘I’ll fix Washington.’ I don’t think so!”

Another Clinton supporter, Patrick Garcia, 52, said older Democrats are more set in their ways. They know Clinton well. They trust her, especially on the issue of health care. Garcia runs a laundry business in San Antonio and finds it increasingly costly to provide health insurance to his employees. “The [Clinton] name has been around longer,” he said. “The diehards are the older Democrats. They don’t change. They don’t jump ship.”

If Obama wins the nomination, the generation gap may be even more stark in a general election race against the 71-year-old Republican John McCain. The 25 years separating the candidates would be the largest age difference in the history of American presidential elections. And the question will become will the passions of the youth continue into the fall?