Sunday, March 23, 2008

Is the GENder Gap becoming a GENeration Gap?

While the gender gap in U.S. politics is narrowing, exit poll results in recent primary elections suggest that a generation gap, in which younger and older Americans vote against one another, seems to be emerging, especially among Democrats. Thanks to the strong social tolerance and lack of gender role differentiation of the Millennial Generation (young Americans born 1982-2003), pluralities of both Millennial males and females now identify themselves as both Democrats and liberals, while Baby Boomer males and females remain as divided as ever along partisan and ideological lines.

But even as the new generation’s increasing presence in the electorate holds out the promise of the end of the gender gap in American politics, the strains of the Democratic primary contest threaten to pit this new “civic” generation’s inclusive and optimistic attitudes and beliefs against the more divisive political behavior of older generations, especially Boomers.

In the March 4 Ohio primary, Hillary Clinton carried the votes of those 60 and over by an overwhelming 69% to 28% over Barack Obama. By contrast, Obama led among those 17-29 by a similarly wide margin (61% vs. 35%). That same day in Texas, Senator Clinton led 62% vs. 35% among those 60 and over, while Obama carried 17-29 year olds, 59% to 40%. Two weeks earlier, in a Wisconsin primary won solidly by Barack Obama, he led among those 18-29 by nearly a 3:1 margin (70%-26%), while Clinton received a majority of support from those 60+ (54% vs. 45%). In Maryland, on February 12, Obama carried 17-29 year olds, 64% to 33%, while Clinton won a narrow plurality of those 60 and over (48% vs. 47%). This pattern has been repeated in state after state throughout the entire presidential primary season.

Of course, generational conflict is nothing new in U.S. elections. In fact, in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, we point out that the rise of new, large and dynamic generations, which vote against the established patterns of older generations, is one of the primary causes of the political realignments that have transformed American politics every four decades throughout our country's history.

The impact of these realignments on the political system and the country depends on the kind of generation that produces the realignment. The last previous generation gap in 1968 featured the ideological, moralistic, and highly divided Baby Boomer generation vs. the gung ho, institution building beliefs of their parents--members of the GI generation, the nation’s previous “civic” generation. It split the Democratic Party apart in that year's presidential election and created the cultural wars that the country has endured for 40 years since. This year's generation gap (and resulting political realignment) is caused by the rise of a civic, unified Millennial Generation with its penchant for win-win, group-oriented solutions to the country's challenges.

All other things being equal, the coming Millennialist realignment should benefit the Democratic Party and make it America's majority governing party for at least four decades. Millennials identify as Democrats by a nearly 2:1 majority and are the first generation in the last three or four to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals than conservatives. They favor governmentally based policies to deal with issues such as economic inequality, health care, and the environment. Millennials support a multilateral approach to U.S. foreign policy. And, they place little importance on divisive social issues and hold "liberal" positions on such matters as gay rights and abortion.

However, the close nominating contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton puts the prospects of a Democratic realignment based on the Millennial Generation in real jeopardy. A large majority of Millennials prefers Obama over Clinton. That difference in candidate preference by itself would not cost the Democrats the support of Millennials should Hillary Clinton ultimately become the Democratic presidential nominee. If anything, Millennials are more loyal to their political party than older, more independent thinking Boomers. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicated that the Boomer-based Clinton supporters would be more than twice as likely to leave the Democrats than the Millennial-based Obama supporters should their favorite candidate not win the Democratic presidential nomination.

But Millennials, raised on principles of fairness and consensus decision making, will be particularly influenced by how the end game that decides the Democratic nomination plays out Unless the rest of this year’s primaries produce a decisive outcome, the most important generational choice confronting the Democrats in the first half of this century will be made over the next several months by the party’s super-delegates. If Hillary Clinton wins "fairly" after receiving the largest number of votes and having the most pledged delegates, a large majority of Millennials will likely remain Democrats and Senator Clinton will have a very good chance to lead a Democratic political realignment. If, on the other hand, Barack Obama, the Millennials' preferred candidate, is denied the nomination in a way that Millennials see as unfair, the Democrats will almost certainly lose an historic opportunity to win the loyalty of this generation and control of American national politics for the next four decades.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, published by Rutgers University Press

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Four Ms of Politics are being changed by Millennials

With the showdown primaries on March 4 over and the outcome of at least the Democratic contest still to be finally decided, it is a good time to point out what the 2008 primary campaigns have already made clear about the future of American politics. After this year, the four basic elements of any campaign—Messenger, Message, Media and Money—will never be the same. Those candidates who have adjusted all four of these dials and tuned them to Millennial Generation sensibilities and behaviors have been the most successful candidates in both party’s primaries.

Millennials, those Americans born between 1982 and 2003, are the most diverse generation in American history. Forty percent of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American or of some other mix of races and ethnicities. And twenty percent come from an immigrant family. A candidate like Barack Obama, whose bi-racial family and generational roots extend from slave owners in America to Kenyan goat herders and social workers in Indonesia, is not an oddity in their minds but has the model background for an American leader.

Eighty percent of Millennials have done some sort of community service in high school. . Eighty-five percent believe that directly contributing something to the community is an important way to improve it. When Senator Obama traces his experience to his days as a community organizer in Chicago, older generations tend to dismiss it as posturing and beside the point in gaining the experience required to government work. Millennials, by contrast, consider community service just the kind of experience they would like to to put on their resume when they apply for a job. Discounting its importance sounds to them like a dismissal of their own accomplishments. Indeed an examination of the biographies of many of the winning Democratic challengers in the 2006 Congressional elections shows this same penchant on the part of new voters to value a career of service over one spent learning the inner workings of the legislative process. It's also a reason why Senator McCain’s service to his country in Vietnam and his stay in the Hanoi Hilton attracts rather than repels this new generation of voters, in spite of the attempts of a feminist icon of the 1960s to minimize the importance of that service.

Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group---since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else. The confrontational style of Baby Boomer candidates like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney strikes them as rude, enough to earn them a time out until they learn how to play nice. By contrast, the unifying message of Barack Obama who suggests, somewhat naively to the ears of older voters, that his solution to the problems of America will be to get everyone around the table to work things out for the good of the country is exactly in tune with the way Millennials have been taught to solve problems. When John McCain distanced himself from Bill Cunningham’s typical talk radio ideological rant, he earned the enmity of many of Cunningham’s colleagues. But he spoke directly to Millennials who are looking for candidates who refuse to engage in that kind of name-calling.

But McCain, like all of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates (with the possible exception of Fred Thompson), remained unable to embrace the social networking technologies that are the lifeblood of Millennials’ daily lives. . Having their children text friends sitting in the same car or “friending” people they barely know on MySpace are common Millennial behaviors that drive parents crazy. But the two most important possessions of any Millennial are their cell phone and their laptop, devices that allow them to stay connected to the Net 24/7. That type of peer-to-peer communication is the center of Barack Obama's media strategy. It has been the key to the organizational strength that Obama has demonstrated in caucuses across the country. . Political pundits who still follow the news on the television news shows or in the newspapers don’t see the enormous volume of personal communication being generated on, built on the same operating system as FaceBook, until the electoral results once again seem to stun them on any given Tuesday night. Having ceded the lead in peer-to peer-media to the Democrats, especially Obama, rather than almost totally relying on older technologies, like talk radio and slick television commercials, the Republicans risk losing as badly in 2008 as they did to an earlier master of a new communication media, FDR, with his soothing radio voice, in 1932.

The same online engine that is generating all of the offline, grass roots enthusiasm for Obama is also raising money for his campaign in unprecedented ways and in unimaginable amounts. With one million of his friends on his website, Obama has now raised more money from more people than any candidate in American political history. Obama's use of this new media with appeals for small donations almost drove the Clinton campaign into bankruptcy and is likely to create a similar untenable disadvantage for John McCain in the general election. Ironically, it was McCain who first demonstrated the power of the Net to raise a lot of money fast in his aborted 2000 campaign. But that was long before broadband and social networks being accessed continuously all day long became the way of life for so many young voters. Now McCain and his party are forced to attempt to shame Obama into using public financing in the general election. That may be the only way they can avoid the kind of monetary deficits that Democrats and the federal government have experienced in the past.

The outcome of the Democratic contest, let alone the general election campaign is not pre-ordained. Events over the next eight months can cause public opinion to change direction. . But the relative ease with which Barack Obama has woven a tightly knit strategy based on a new approach to what the profile of a Presidential candidate should look like; the fundamental appeal the candidate should make to the voters; the way that appeal should be communicated to all voters, but especially young ones; and the resources such an approach can bring to a campaign, makes his candidacy the most likely to succeed, with one possible exception. Hillary Clinton’s success in most large states so far suggests that this new alignment of the four Ms of American politics has yet to be fully tested in campaigns requiring more complex organizational efforts over a longer period of time. In Silicon Valley terminology, it is not yet certain that this new configuration of the four Ms can “scale” to the size required to win a national campaign. Both the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania and the general election fight to come should provide the final test of this new approach to political campaigning and definitively establish a new formula for victory in the coming decades.