Parsing the Generational Divide for Democrats

Lindsay Mangum, NPR and Pew Research Center

Young Voters and the Democrats

Exit poll data from the Democratic primaries so far show that young voters (age 18-29) tend to vote much differently than their older counterparts (age 60 and older).

In states such as Virginia and Georgia, where the median age is 37 and 28, respectively, young voters supported Illinois Sen. Barack Obama over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin, helping him carry both states.

But in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton won big with the senior citizen vote: They overwhelming backed her over Obama, 2-to-1. In Pennsylvania, the median age is 40; in Ohio, it's 37.

Illinois Sen.. Barack Obama supporters i i

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama supporters during a rally at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen.. Barack Obama supporters

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama supporters during a rally at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Young Voters and the General Election

A new report by the Pew Research Center shows a correlation between age and party affiliation.

According to a poll conducted between October 2007 and March 2008, 58 percent of voters under the age of 30 lean toward the Democratic Party — compared with 33 percent who identify as Republican. This represents a 14-point jump in Democratic support among young voters since the 2004 election.

Of course, young voters will only tip the scales if they turn out in heavy numbers on Nov. 4. A recent survey done by PennPIRG shows that youth turnout rates have surged in many of the primaries held by both parties this year.

In Pennsylvania's Democratic contest, for example, 14 percent of registered voters were aged 18 to 29. Twenty-one percent of those young voters turned out for the Democratic primary — a 200 percent increase in overall young voter turnout in that state since the general election in 2000.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have divided the Democratic Party by race, income and education, but there is no demographic indicator that sorts the Democratic vote as starkly as age.

If you voted in one of the Democratic primaries or caucuses, your age probably determined your vote: The older you are, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the younger you are, the more likely you were to vote for Obama.

Part of this divide is easily explained, since Obama is younger, 46, and Clinton is 60. But, Obama has a particular appeal to young people such as Zahir Rahman, a sophomore at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Identifying with Obama

"He's hip to our culture and seems to know where younger people are coming from," Rahman says. Then he explains Obama's appeal as "someone who's new, offers this idea of hope, of change, which really isn't attributed to either party or any of the other candidates who are running."

But that's not the only reason young people vote for Obama, says Cliff Zukin, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Unlike their baby boomer parents, voters under 30 are incredibly tolerant.

"We have a woman candidate running against a black candidate for president," Zukin says. "If you had advanced that idea 25 years ago, people would have said that can't happen. And the young people today are so tolerant that they don't even think of that as an issue."

There have been "youth candidates" before in the Democratic Party, including Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Gary Hart. But this year, young voters are doing more than just getting excited about a candidate. They are actually turning out to vote.

Young Lean Democratic

In primaries and caucuses all over the country, voters under 30 have doubled and, in some places, tripled their turnout participation. Traditionally young voters have very low turnout, but now their participation nationally is reaching their share of the population. And the young voters who are turning out largely are Democrats, Zukin says.

"If young people come into politics and identify as Democrats, there's going to cause a sea change in politics," he says. "What we've seen with George W. Bush is that he has made Democrats out of young people the same way Ronald Reagan made Republicans out of young people."

People tend to form their partisan preferences in their 20s and stick with them, so this trend could be the beginning of a long-term political realignment. In the short term, if Obama is the nominee, age will be a big issue.

Underscoring McCain's Age

Obama is already teeing up a classic generational challenge to the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. On the campaign trail, Obama has said, "Now, I believe John McCain is a good man and a genuine American hero, and we honor his half-century of service to this nation."

The subtext of Obama's statement is that a half-century of service is a long time. Obama's message is simple: McCain is old. If he is elected, McCain will be the oldest president ever.

Sometimes McCain makes a joke out of his age.

At a Q-and-A with a group of newspaper editors, he was asked if he worried that voters might reject him because he will turn 72 by January 2009. McCain responded by pretending to nod off in his chair, to which the audience roared with laughter.

There will be a lot more talk about age, both funny and serious, if the general election match-up turns out to represent the biggest age difference in the history of American presidential campaigns.

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