The Generation Gap: The Real Story in the Mid-Term Elections

The  gains Republicans made among women voters has been one of the main storylines of the 2010 mid-term elections. Despite these gains, the gender gap has persisted and according to the Center for American Women in Politics: “was at least as evident in 2010, a year of substantial Republican gains, as it was in 2008, a year when Democrats were elected in large numbers.”

So the gender gap persists, but pales in significance when compared to the generation gap.

According to the New York Times analysis of exit polls:

The generational divide exposed in the 2008 election was more pronounced. Voters under 30 were the only age group to support Democrats but made up just 11 percent of the electorate, typical for a midterm election. By contrast, voters aged 60 and older represented 34 percent of voters, their highest proportion in exit polls since 1982.”

The numbers are striking:

In 2010, 51% of women% and 57% of men voted for the Republicans.

Among voters 60 and older, 56% of women and 60% of men voted for the Republicans.

Among voters between 18 and 29, 39% of women and 44% of men voted for the Republicans.

If young voters had voted in proportions similar to older voters, we would be looking at a very different electoral map.

For liberals/ progressives these figures give reason to hope. A segment of the electorate (largely white and over 60 and associated with the “Tea Party”) is unsettled by the country’s changing demographics and can’t accept the election of an African-American president, the cultural diversity of 21st century America, and the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.

The Tea Party claims that this is all about reining in big government. Considering that these very same people did not protest the huge deficits of the Bush administration, I can’t believe that all this anger is just about the deficit. The Tea Party may have cleaned up the overt racism in many of the signs brandished in their 2009 rallies, but their “take back our country” rhetoric has an ugly, racially charged subtext.

This segment of the electorate will ultimately lose. From Tim Wise’s widely circulated article “The Last Gasp of Aging White Power: But Time Is Not on Your Side:”

I know , you think you’ve taken “your country back” with this election — and of course you have always thought it was yours for the taking, cuz that’s what we white folks are bred to believe, that it’s ours, and how dare anyone else say otherwise — but you are wrong.
You have won a small battle in a larger war the meaning of which you do not remotely understand.
‘Cuz there is nothing even slightly original about you.
There have always been those who wanted to take the country back.
There were those who, in past years, wanted to take the country back to a time of enslavement and indentured servitude.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when children could be made to work in mines and factories, when workers had no legal rights to speak of, when the skies in every major city were heavy with industrial soot that would gather on sidewalks and windowsills like volcanic ash.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when women could not vote, or attend any but a few colleges, or get loans in their own names, or start their own businesses.
But they lost.
There were those who wanted to take us back to a time when blacks “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect,” – this being the official opinion of the Supreme Court before those awful days of judicial activism, now decried by the likes of you – and when people of color could legally be kept from voting solely because of race, or holding certain jobs, or living in certain neighborhoods, or run out of other towns altogether when the sun would go down, or be strung up from trees.
But they lost.
And you will lose.

Wise’s article at times has an ageist tone which I find a little hard to take–after all I’m in that demographic he can’t wait to get rid of–but his analysis is correct. The country is changing dramatically; at some point the political system will reflect the politics and demographics of the new majority.

The changes are happening much more rapidly than I ever thought possible. Like so many in my age cohort, I never thought I would see the election of an African-American president, the high point of my political life.

Accelerating this time table will depend on persuading young people it’s in their interest to vote. President Obama certainly delivered on some of his promises which would directly impact young voters. Young people can stay on their parents’ health care plan until the age of 26 and the revamping of the student loan program has led to significant savings for students and their families.

But it appears that many young people do not see the connection between these policies and voting in mid-term elections. There’s no magic bullet here, but I think making it easier to vote has got to be part of the solution. In my state, Pennsylvania, voters must register 30 days prior to the election, there is no early voting, and the process for getting an absentee ballot is very cumbersome.

Young voters, who are often juggling school, jobs and family responsibilities often find squeezing in time to get home to vote a real challenge. Older voters, who are in many cases retired, have a relatively easy time getting out to the neighborhood polling pace. This system of voting in one’s neighborhood may have made sense when most people worked close to home, but it’s clearly creating hard ships for many working people now.

We also need more young, vibrant candidates who will appeal to young voters and give them a reason to go to the polls.

So there’s a lot of work to do, but the change is coming. The question is how soon.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    It’s a little reckless to say that on group makes up 11% percent of voters and another makes 34% of voters without adjusting for the size of each group. Granted, it does turn out that the 60+ group is only about 6% larger than the 18-29 group (according to 2008 data from census.org), but there are comparisons where the difference will be nontrivial.

    The participation of “young candidates” is constrained a little by age requirements.

    I think a major hurdle to voter participation (young or otherwise) is voters not having more than two “serious” choices. Younger voters may generally find the Democrats more palatable than Republicans, but a lot of them are still not satisfied with what the Democrats are offering, because Democrats still do not fully represent what they want from their government.

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