August 13, 2008

Generational Divide? Obama and McCain

After the American Century

McCain is almost exactly 25 years older than Obama, and just as importantly, he looks much older as well. Partly for this reason alone, they therefore appeal to quite different generations, though it is hard to decide how much a candidate's age influences particular groups of voters. In general, however, McCain would win easily if only people over 60 could vote, and Obama would win easily if only those under 50 could, and it would be landslide if only those under 40 could. The so-called "millennial generation" is more for him than Generation Xers, in other words. Each candidate is aware of these demographics, and anyone looking for an advertiser's view of this matter should look at "What Obama can teach you about Millennial Marking". Obama hopes to mobilize the youth vote, which is notoriously lazy about getting to the polls. McCain is banking on the geriatric electorate, which grows larger each year.

Rather than focus on the two ends of the spectrum, however, it might be more useful to think of the election in terms of who wins the votes of those between 50 and 62. This is the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1958. They graduated from college starting in 1968. They grew up with the Cold War and lived with the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. For them, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate were formative experiences. Most of them can tell you exactly where they were in 1963 when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Most of them also remember the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. This is a generation born into a wealthy nation that in its youth never imagined the dollar could be so weak or that the US could become a debtor nation on such a massive scale. But just as they were coming of age, they experienced the bleak 1970s economy, with its stagflation and energy crisis, which at time time appeared to be a permanent scarcity of resources.

This generation has already produced two presidents. Both Bush and Clinton were born in 1946, and they epitomize the complexity of the boomers, who were by no means all hippies and revolutionaries. The boomers divide geographically into those from the South, who tend toward cultural conservatism and the Republicans, those from the Northeast and West coast, who tend toward liberal and to a lesser extent to radical positions, and the key group that is up for grabs, from the Midwest and the West. In other words, Obama and McCain should be focusing on this demographic group in the heartland, and it would be highly likely for either or both to select a vice-president from a state like Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, or Ohio, who is part of that generation.

Yet more than the right demographic face is needed. Each candidate will need to develop a story that appeals to the boomer voters, extrapolating from their historical experience to the present. Obama will likely do this by calling upon the imagery and the language of the Kennedy era, including an echo of Martin Luther King as well. Note that his convention acceptance speech is scheduled on the anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" address. McCain stands for the supposed "lost cause" of Vietnam, and he has already begun to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. In other words, he is gently distancing himself from the younger Bush, in part by being seen with his father. Somewhat paradoxically, the older candidate will likely present himself as the heir of the 1980s, while the younger candidate will seek to represent the spirit of the early 1960s.

Will the Boomers prefer a return to Jackie and Jack's Camelot, with its idealism, hope, and promise? Or will they choose a warrior's narrative of struggle and survival against external threats? Obama and McCain will each project a different vision of the past as the basis that voters should use to see into the future. To the Midwestern Boomer generation, either of these scenarios might appear plausible.