Republicans were rightfully excited by the enthusiastic response that the nomination by John McCain of Sarah Palin received from a significant portion of the electorate. However after the initial euphoria wore off, a pattern emerged that suggested the nomination was not going to be the ten strike it first appeared to be.
There is no question that her nomination energized the conservative base of the Republican Party who was suspicious of McCain’s commitment to their positions on the social issues dealing with “God, guns and gays.” Beyond those Republican stalwarts, however, the nomination has done little to gain McCain additional support from groups such as disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters and independents and moderates that the campaign had hoped would be won over by Governor Palin. Since the conventions, recent CBS polls, among others, show that Barack Obama’s support among white women, for instance, has actually gone up and that of McCain has declined. McCain has also lost support among moderates and independents since his selection of Palin.
Much of the lost ground for the GOP has come from the Millennial Generation, those 26 and younger. Millennials reject the confrontational or risk-taking style that Palin--a classic Gen Xer--exhibits. Just as they have a hard time getting along with their Gen X bosses at work, Millennials of both genders and all races have turned away from the McCain ticket at least partially in response to the choice of Sarah Palin. Obama now enjoys more than a 2:1 advantage among Millennials and this largest American generation might provide him with up to a 10 million-vote margin over McCain IF it votes on Election Day in equal numbers to older generations. Even if Millennials vote at only the low level that young voters did in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Obama's margin over John McCain among this generation is likely to be two or three times the margin young voters gave Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Whether Palin’s nomination produces a great enough turnout among Republican base voters than what it loses among Millennials may well determine the wisdom of Senator McCain’s vice-presidential choice.
The key to waging a successful presidential campaign by either Barack Obama or John McCain will be their ability to use their respective conventions to overcome generational tensions. What happens in Denver and the Twin Cities could give the nominees freedom to embrace the generational changes that will shape American politics for decades to come.
If the candidates pay proper attention to generational politics, each convention will begin with a nod to their party's Boomers and then pivot away from the past to address, on the final night, new voters whose support they will need to win in November.
The candidates must take the lead in managing their party's convention so that the ticket and its platform reflect the desire of the electorate to move beyond the cultural wars of the 1960s. Each party's understanding of this generationally driven challenge will be evident in how it handles the iconic, Boomer figures demanding center stage at their conventions.
Obama, in an acknowledgement of the generational strains in his party, has agreed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's request to not only address the convention in prime time on Tuesday night, but to have her name placed in nomination the following night. In return, he has gained the agreement of former president Bill Clinton to, in effect, lead the Boomers in the Democratic Party to embrace and endorse Senator Obama's nomination on Wednesday night.
As tough as that challenge has been for Obama, the problem is more acute for John McCain. President Bush's job performance ratings are among the lowest of any president. But he remains popular with Boomer ideologues in the GOP, who are continually looking for signs that McCain has stayed from party orthodoxy. Any attempt to deny a sitting president the spotlight at their national convention, as Democrats did in keeping Lyndon Johnson from addressing their 1968 convention, will be met with cries of "I told you not to trust him" from Republican true believers.
It appears that McCain's advisers have decided to throw cultural war red meat to the delegates with appearances by Bush and Vice President Cheney on Monday, in hopes that the electorate won't pay too much attention until later in the week.
If history is any guide, the place where both candidates will be willing to make concessions to their party's ideological base will be the party's platform. Since this policy statement is debated early in the convention, with little penalty for abandoning a plank or two later in the campaign, platforms are the easiest way to throw a bone to ideological purists. The Generation X and Boomer Democratic blogosphere has previously attacked Obama for failing to adhere to hard left positions on post 9-11 issues and offshore oil drilling.
Similarly, a number of conservatives have condemned McCain's former positions on climate change, immigration, and campaign finance reform.
The choice each candidate must make is whether to use the platform debate to give the cultural warriors in their party a final opportunity to replay the political drama of the nation's Boomer past or to use the platform debate as a "Sister Souljah" generational moment and decisively break with that kind of divisive politics.
Senator McCain's campaign has already announced a "hands off" approach to his own party's platform, making it clear he doesn't intend to abide by all of its provisions--or fight over them. Senator Obama has taken a more inclusive approach to the platform, seeking to find ways to blend different opinions among party activists into one document everyone can agree on--a classic Millennial approach to resolving a problem.
In the end, however, there will be no better place for the two candidates to demonstrate their break with the politics of past generations than in their acceptance speeches.
The McCain campaign has signaled its intention to use their candidate's story of personal sacrifice on behalf of the nation throughout the convention. This effort will likely culminate in an acceptance speech attempting to simultaneously distinguish his life's experience from those of the Woodstock generation ("I was tied up at the time") and arouse the passions of his party's Boomer base.
The challenge, however, is how to do that that without awakening a set of related thoughts among Millennials about just how old and potentially out of touch with their generation he is. Millennials weren't around for Woodstock, don't care about it, and prefer that everyone "play nice" together. Passion displayed as anger turns them off. To capture a new and winning coalition in this campaign, McCain would be better off using his acceptance speech to underline his national security credentials based on a lifetime of service, both of which appeal greatly to Millennials.
Obama's decision to deliver his acceptance speech before a large outdoor audience on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech comes with its own set of risks. Echoes of that remarkable speech are sure to arouse the passions of the liberal half of the Boomer generation. But, it will also remind viewers of the turmoil of the 60s that drove a majority of the nation to embrace the Republicans' appeal for "law and order."
Obama's rhetoric will need to inspire a new generation to take the next steps toward achievement of King's dream, without creating a backlash among the rest of the electorate that wasn't enamored with the racial overtones of the Democratic primary campaign.
To succeed in November, both candidates will have to speak explicitly to the future and demonstrate that their campaign represents the hopes of a new generation. The country is waiting for a new leader with a new approach to guide it out of the Boomer briar patch in which it has been stuck since 1968. After the conventions, we will have a clearer idea who can best lead the country into a new era of American politics.
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.
Makeovers or realignments occur about every four decades in American politics, resulting in forty years of partisan advantage for the party that catches the next wave of generational and technological change. For the other party, it means spending forty years in the minority. Whether a party prospers or loses ground at the time of a realignment depends, in large part, on whether it is willing to embrace a new coalition of voters that is aligned with the larger changes taking place in society or whether it remains locked in the divisions and debates of the past.
In 1896, the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan looked back to an agrarian America and to Jefferson's and Jackson's "yeoman farmer", leaving it to Republicans William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Carl Rove of his era, to appeal to an emerging urban America. The result was GOP dominance of U.S. politics for the next forty years.
The Democrats got it right in 1932. That year, spurred by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt built a coalition based on the economic egalitarianism of the GI Generation, many of whom were blue-collar workers and the children and grandchildren of the last great wave of European immigrants to the United States.
But as late as 1968, many Democrats still wanted to rely on the New Deal coalition even as a young idealist generation, Baby Boomers, attempted to get the party to focus on a different set of concerns including civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to the Vietnam war. The resulting divisions presented an opportunity that the Republicans have exploited ever since.
Now, forty years later, American politics is undergoing another period of political and generational change just as it did in 1896, 1932, and 1968. If the Democratic Party has the courage to embrace a new generation of young voters and the group-oriented values it favors, it can once again recapture the political advantage for the next four decades.
Unfortunately, most of the advice the party is getting on what constitutes a winning coalition in 2008, is being provided by pundits and candidates who seem locked in the politics and divisions of the past. Some tell the party to focus on the "white working class," or "hardworking white people." On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the focus should be on "senior citizens," virtually all of whom vote and who, together, comprise about 20-percent of the electorate. But these approaches to coalition building neither recognize the major demographic changes continuing to take place in America nor the factors that lead to political makeovers or realignments.
Throughout history, realignments have been produced by the political coming-of-age of a large, dynamic generation and its use of a new communication technology that mobilizes the opinions and votes of that generation. Today's realignment stems from the emergence of the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003) and its use of Internet based social networking technologies.
The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are over 90 million Millennials, about four in ten of whom are of voting age, making them just as powerful a force in the 2008 election as the much more frequently touted senior citizen cohort.
The Millennial Generation is also the most diverse in our history. Four in ten are non-white and about 20-percent are the children of at least one immigrant parent. Reflecting their gender-neutral behavior, a majority of college undergraduates are women, for the first time in U.S. history. Solid majorities of Millennials are tolerant on social and racial issues, favorable to governmental intervention and egalitarian policies in the economy, and an activist, but multilateral, approach in foreign affairs. With few exceptions, Millennials have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses.
At the same time, changes in America's economy and the composition of its population serve to continue the half-century long trend, noted recently by Alan Abramowitz in the Rasmussen Report, of the diminishing contribution of "white working class voters" to the American workforce overall and to the Democratic electorate specifically:
"In the 1950s, manual workers made up 47 percent of the white electorate in the United States while sales and clerical workers made up 21 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 32 percent. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, manual workers made up only 24 percent of the white electorate, while sales and clerical workers made up 33 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 43 percent. Since the 1960s, however, Democratic identification among both white manual workers and white sales and clerical workers has declined sharply while Democratic identification among white professional and managerial workers has risen. Today, white professional and managerial workers are actually more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than either white manual workers or white clerical and sales workers."
As Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel wrote recently, the Democratic Party is rapidly becoming a party of "gentry liberals", minorities and youth with little resemblance to the working class-based party coalition assembled by FDR almost eighty years ago.
This shift in America's economic dynamics and demographics, coupled with the generational and technological changes the country is experiencing, produces an historic opportunity for the Democratic Party in 2008. In a March 2008 Pew Survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin. Millennials are the first generation in more than forty years in which a larger number say they are liberal rather than conservative. In contrast to older generations that are sharply divided by sex and race in their ideology and party identification Millennials are united in their political leanings, a fact that serves to enhance the potential decisiveness of this powerful new generation.
All of this gives the Democrats a clear leg-up in the Millennial makeover that's under way. Whether the Democratic Party takes advantage of this historical opportunity largely depends on the choices it makes in building its electoral coalition. Will it look backward, as it did to its detriment in 1896, or forward, as it did in 1932, to its benefit? The consequences of that choice will shape the fate of the party and the nation, not just in 2008, but also for the coming four decades.
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 MyBarackObama.com, 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.
Big things are on the horizon in America. After decades of gridlock and disillusionment, a new and, in Caroline Kennedy's words, "hopeful, hard-working, innovative, and imaginative" generation is spurring massive change and renewal in our nation's political life. The first contests of the 2008 campaign have demonstrated that the increased optimism and excitement about politics of this rising generation has even begun to spread to members of other, older generations.
The massive increases in the Democratic vote, especially among young voters, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and even in this week's Florida beauty contest are, by now, well-known. But there are other early indications of the Millennial Generation-led resurgence in excitement about politics. According to the Nielsen television rating service, the national audience for the Myrtle Beach Democratic debate held just before the South Carolina primary was the largest for a primary debate in cable history. Viewing among 18-49 year olds, the demographic most coveted by advertisers, was also at record levels.
All of these indicators of Millennial Generation political excitement and optimism and the spread of those feelings to older Americans are confirmed in a January 2008 national online survey conducted by the Millennial Strategy Program of media research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates. A clear majority of all Americans (57%) and nearly two-thirds of Millennials (61%) say that this year's election is more important than other recent presidential elections.
Millennial attitudes are more optimistic than those of Gen-Xers or Boomers. Forty-percent of Millennials believe that the United States will be better off as a result of the 2008 presidential election; only 23 percent feel that things will be unchanged, and only nine percent think things will be worse after November. While about a third of both older generations believe that the outcome of the 2008 election will improve things, slight pluralities of both Xers (42%) and Boomers (43%) feel that the 2008 election will leave America unchanged or in worse shape.
But the politics of hope is beginning to infect Americans of all ages. In a December 2006 Magid survey, voters split evenly about whether Americans are too divided to unite and solve the country's problems or could come together with the right leadership and cause (45% vs. 47%). Now, a majority (50%) believes that Americans can unite and only a third (36%) remain doubtful. All generations have participated in this increased optimism, Millennials more than others.
As the campaign now spreads to twenty-two states on February 5, the contagious enthusiasm of Millennials for reinvigorating our civic institutions will reshape the nation's political landscape just as much as the GI Generation and FDR's infectious optimism did seventy-six years ago.