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2012: An Election Of Generations

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you really can’t overlook the fact that the topic of generations has dominated much of the political campaign dialogue.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you really can’t overlook the fact that the topic of generations has dominated much of the political campaign dialogue.

I tuned into both the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention and lost count at how many times both parties referenced the significance of younger generations.

This isn’t all that surprising. Generations X (1965-1981) and Y (1982-1995) are key to the future success of each campaign—and each political party. A combined demographic of 120 million, by 2015 they will be the majority of the workforce, consumers and decision-makers.

Interesting enough, the party divide is becoming a generational divide. USA Today explored the gap in its article, Seniors for Romney, Millennials for Obama.

Time magazine referred to the changing American voter and generation gap as follows:

The 137 million voters registered to go to the polls this November will not look like the 131 million who voted for President in 2008. And they are vastly different from the 96 million who voted the year Bill Clinton was re-elected. The U.S. has been changed by circumstance, economics, demographics and the simple passage of time. We are a youth-obsessed country that has never been older.

According to Pew Research Center’s report, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election, younger people have voted substantially more Democratic in each election since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006.

In fact, the young-old voting gap is at its largest spread since the 1972 election—around 20 percent. Not since then has generation played such a significant role in voter preferences as it has in recent elections. In 1972, Nixon was able to split the young vote with McGovern, then crushed McGovern with the over age 30 vote.  

Nevertheless, the 2012 election presents a challenging climate that’s difficult for either political party to decipher with any accuracy.

Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation (a.k.a. Generation Y) voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats.

However, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign, which could hurt the Barack Obama campaign. Furthermore, Baby Boomers and Generation X voters, who are the most anxious about the uncertain economic times, are on the fence about a second term for Obama.

Without a doubt, the Republicans are hoping to win the favor of Generation X voters, who were born between 1965 and 1981. Not long after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Wisconsin congressman was hailed for his status as the first Generation X candidate on a presidential ticket.

The Washington Times’ Kerry Picket wrote, “Hopefully, the Wisconsin Republican can bring a new image as opposed to the ‘slacker’ and ‘skeptical’ images Generation X has been stamped with for too long.”

Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, stated: “Ryan, the first Generation-X candidate on any presidential ticket, wants to turn that outdated process upside down. … On this Saturday morning in Virginia, with Romney as a father, the ‘New Republican’ may have been born.”

Politically, Generation X represents the growing partisan gulf of the country at large. Those born on the early side of the generation came of age during the Reagan revolution and are more likely to be conservative, with a libertarian slant. Those who grew up later, in the Clinton years, tend to be liberal, though not nearly as idealistic as Clinton, a Baby Boomer president.

In general, they prefer a more pragmatic, realist approach to government. (Much like one of their favorite childhood characters, Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox on Family Ties.)

They are split as to whether they want larger or smaller government, but have a preference for individual choice on issues like education. And Xers tend to be liberal on social issues. They voted for Barack Obama 52 percent to McCain’s 46 percent in 2008, according to a Pew Research report.

However, their support of President Obama, especially where the economy is concerned, is slipping. Only 22 percent of Xers say his economic policies have made things better, and 37 percent say he’s made them worse.

Additionally, they have been reluctant to get involved in government. We currently have the oldest Congress in history, almost entirely comprised of Baby Boomers and Silents.

So it’s not surprising GOP strategists are pushing the narrative of “Paul Ryan and the Gen-X GOP.” They are hoping the Generation X narrative will be good for the campaign and the political party, much like the Obama campaign tapped into the Generation Y values of hope and change—and cool branding—in 2008.

The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, but both parties will agree it’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future and are quickly becoming the majority.

In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, Generation X will be the wild card, and Xers and Ys they may well be outworked by the larger, more energized generations of Boomers and Silents.

Indeed, the young can sometimes lose elections. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.

Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008.

As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young Boomer Democrats who once voted for McGovern.

That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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