Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hillary missed the Millennials in Iowa

Despite all their efforts to put a positive spin on their Iowa showing on the plane to New Hampshire, the Clinton team couldn’t avoid acknowledging the most important mistake they made in Iowa—discounting the youth vote.

Not only did Clinton lose to Barack Obama by an almost six to one margin among Millennial Generation (those under 25) caucus attendees, but also her weakness in this age group was the key to her overall loss among women. While Hillary carried the over 45 female vote 36%-24%, Obama won women under 45 by a 50%-21% margin and the surprisingly strong turnout among young caucus goers turned that margin into an overall defeat among the female constituency Hillary was counting on the most. Had she and her team only read their history, they wouldn’t have been surprised by this outcome.

About every eighty years or so, a “Civic” generation, like the GI Generation and now the Millennials, comes along with a determination to use their size and their facility with communication technology to change the political culture of America. 2008 will be the first election when Millennials, the largest generation in American history, born between 1982 and 2003, will be eligible to vote in sufficient numbers to tip the political scales to candidates who they favor, but they have already made their presence known to those analyzing election data, not just the latest poll results. They, along with the last remaining members of the GI Generation, were the only age groups to cast majority votes for John Kerry in 2004. The YouTube inspired involvement of Millennials in the Senate races in Virginia and Montana was the difference in those two close elections, returning Democrats to majority status in 2006. But those initial tremors are minor compared to the tsunami of change that Millennials will set in motion in the 2008 elections.

Jaded pollsters, like Clinton’s Mark Penn, and columnists, like Thomas L. Friedman, who have been waiting for the emergence of a sizeable youth vote and youthful activism for decades, completely ignored this emerging phenomenon believing that today’s youth would disappoint those hoping for any sign of political commitment, just as people under 25 had done ever since the 1970s. But that attitude, common among Baby Boomers who believe the entire world should think and act the way they do, represents a significant misreading of history. Gen Xers, who adored and still revere Ronald Reagan and distrust government, were responsible for the decline in voter participation among young people in the 1980s and 1990s, but as studies by Harvard’s Institute of Politics have demonstrated, ever since 9/11 today’s youth have voted in increasing numbers, at a growth rate that surpasses that of all other generations. Now that they have a candidate like Barack Obama who appeals to this generation’s partisan passion for changing America, their impact will reverberate across the country as loudly as it did in Iowa last week.

A careful observer of the Obama and Clinton campaigns' youth turnout efforts could have seen the results coming. Hillary’s team were told to invite young people over for a night of watching TV shows like Gray’s Anatomy or The Office, and use that opportunity to engage them in a conversation on the issues. Obama’s team went about finding its cadre of supporters by using their website, built off of the FaceBook operating system or platform, in tune with Millennial’s social networking habits. Once they found potential supporters, Obama’s team didn’t ask them to watch television, something Millennials do infrequently, unless it’s on their laptop with shows downloaded from the Net, but to hang out at the local bar. There Michelle Obama, or “the closer” as her husband calls her, asked them to come out on caucus night and change America’s politics forever.

Clinton's attempt to make her gender define the nature of the historic change in this election missed another important trait of Millennials. This generation is the most gender neutral, race-and ethnicity-blind group of young people in American history. Only sixty percent of Millennials are white; twenty percent have an immigrant parent; and, ninety percent have a friend of another race. While Baby Boomers are justifiably proud of their idealistic efforts on behalf of civil rights and women’s rights, Millennials take diversity as a given and tolerance as the only acceptable behavior. That’s why, on caucus night, young women voted for Obama and his message of hope, while older women felt motivated to support the first credible female candidate for President. Once again, the Clinton’s circle of Boomer advisors just couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t thinking and behaving like they did.

The generational differences in the two candidate's teams were embarrassingly obvious during their speeches to their supporters on caucus night. A collection of Silent and Boomer Generation former leaders, from Madeline Albright to Wesley Clark, not to mention Bill Clinton, was planted behind Hillary. Obama’s backdrop was his kids, his wife and throngs of young supporters who knew that their efforts had created an historic moment for the country. Given this generational bias, really a blind spot in their thinking, it’s hard to believe Hillary can fix her problem with Millennials before the final campaign showdown on February 5, let alone in the few days between Iowa and New Hampshire. But if she can’t find a way to appeal to this emerging generation quickly and on its own terms, she will become the first, but certainly not the last, candidate whose failure to recognize the historical pattern of generational cycles in American politics has cost them their future.

Morley Winograd is co-author with Michael D. Hais of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press, March 2008)

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