No, we’re not talking about the much overplayed Alanis Morrisette song. We’re talking about the 1996 elections with regard to young people.
President Clinton has broken the trust of young people. During the past four years, they saw the President veto welfare reform, a balanced budget, tax relief, and Medicare reform. Articles like USA Today’s “Youth Vote Still is Up for Grabs” and Rolling Stone’s “Clinton Rocked the Vote, Now it’s Rocking Him” showed a growing cynicism about the New Democrat who was governing like a New Dealer.
Despite the broken promises, the disillusionment, the more conservative and independent leanings of Xers, and the President’s transparent masquerade in conservative drag, young people came out in favor of President Clinton on November 5. And therein lies the irony.
Greenberg Research reports that “among all age groups in 1996, President Bill Clinton achieved his biggest electoral margin over Bob Dole among young voters under 30.” According to the group’s exit polls, 53% of 18-24 year olds voted for Clinton, 34% for Dole, with Ross Perot picking up the balance. The Democratic Leadership Council predicts that this electoral trend is solidifying a Democratic trend for the X generation.
Not so fast. The Left is wrong to conclude that this 19 point spread is about the rising popularity of a liberal agenda. If you look closely at the numbers, President Clinton’s support among this group of young people soared to its election day high only in the waning days of the campaign. In fact, as late as August 18th a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed voters, aged 18-24, favoring Senator Dole, 45-41.
So what went wrong? There are several reasons for the inconsistency between where young people say they are philosophically and how they voted in 1996.
First, the 1996 election was largely about style and symbolism. It’s no secret that the President is perceived as being warmer and more in touch with people outside the Beltway than Bob Dole. Although Bob Dole and President Clinton both campaigned on the successes of the Republican-controlled Congress, the contrast between the messengers was stark. Bob Dole’s style of short, clipped sound-byte length campaigning never registered with young people, who tend to be suspicious of “merc” (slang for commercial) sounding salesmen. Alternatively, President Clinton’s photo ops with young people and his emissaries, like the ever-hip George Stephanopolous, framed him as someone who could relate to and who cared about young people.
Second, Clinton consistently targeted his message toward issues important to young people. The President highlighted education, family values, welfare reform, the environment, tax cuts, and his vision for the future in every speech and news interview. Meanwhile, Dole talked about a 15% tax cut and attacked the President on character. While young people are receptive to the conservative message of smaller government and private sector partnerships to improve education, providing tax relief, stopping abuses in welfare, and using common sense to protect the environment, they didn’t hear this kind of forward-looking vision from Dole.
The President’s strategy was simple. He stole the conservative thunder of the last two years and took credit for conservative measures which reduced wasteful government spending by $50 billion dollars, while keeping intact student loans, providing child care for mothers who are trying to get off welfare, and protecting the environment. By claiming credit for the Republican Congress’ accomplishments and attacking the proposals his liberal extremist base refused to let him support (i.e., Medicare reform and the Balanced Budget Amendment), the President was able to paint himself as the agent of change who young people voted for in 1992 – distinguishing himself from the environment-polluting, student loan-cutting, old timer Bob Dole.
Finally, the election was about an increasing distaste for partisanship. President Clinton came across as more bipartisan than Bob Dole, partly by virtue of Bob Dole’s strategy to distinguish himself from the President in partisan terms. This was a turn off to young voters who find partisanship unpalatable. An ABC-Channel One poll showed that young people identify themselves as conservative by a 2-1 margin and 67% say they would likely vote for an independent candidate.
This is, in part, a result of the increasingly popular view among young people of the New Deal as a “Raw Deal,” since they are finding it harder than their parents to become financially stable and are increasingly cynical of the government’s ability to make good on its promises. A Time/CNN poll showed that 53% of young people say they are worried about the future, and 88% believe that the American Dream will be harder to attain than it was for previous generations.
Whether it’s Welfare, Social Security, or Medicare, young people are understandably cynical about government programs whose purse strings are tied to constituencies that will escape the legacy of bankruptcy these programs leave behind. As such, it’s no surprise that Generation Xers have rates of saving and investing that make baby boomers look like slackers. In short, young people want an end to the partisanship and mud-slinging. By virtue of his incumbency and his charisma, President Clinton was able to transcend the partisan bickering that became a part of Bob Dole’s election strategy.
While the Dole campaign did have an outreach project to Xers, it was not nearly as far reaching or sophisticated as efforts made by the Left to garner the support of young people. Between left-leaning groups like MTV’s Rock the Vote, Youth Vote ’96, and the blatantly liberal outreach efforts like the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer, the Left reached a much larger constituency. The rest follows: despite Xer’s general conservatism, the young people who spindoctors meet face-to-face are, by-and-large, the ones who will adopt their prescriptive policies.
The trend towards Clinton in the last two elections presents several challenges for the conservative/libertarian movement in 1998 and 2000. First, a viable youth outreach effort must be established. Convincing politicians that they can win the youth vote when young people continue to be portrayed by the media as liberal will only come through education and a commitment to combating the voting trend of the last two elections.
Second, conservatives, as a whole, are less visible within the popular culture. Public relations gurus, policy wonks, and politicians need to be educated on how to target the right media markets, messengers, and message to reach young people. Newspapers and talk radio do not provide a daily diet of information to young people. Rather, conservatives should reach out through regular appearances at colleges and universities, charity events, and even, like House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH), Lollapolooza rock concerts.
Third, conservatives need to convince young people that they are committed to the issues important to Generation X. Learning to be on the offensive with regard to student loans, the environment, and reducing federal government must be an integral part of the “105th Congress 101” curriculum if they are going to succeed in stopping what the Democrat pollsters are now touting as an inevitable liberal rebirth.
Finally, politicians need to convince young people that our political system, complete with fights on the House and Senate floors, and a range of debates about the future is in our nation’s best interest. Unfortunately, the partisan tone has overshadowed the fact that the design of our great system of government is that the people make their voices heard by electing representatives, and that the ensuing debate reaches a legislative consensus is a good, constructive and necessary part of the democratic process.
Young people are untapped rich and fertile ground for conservatives. But as of yet, the movement has failed to spend the time and resources to convince young people that it holds the better vision for their future. If conservatives change their course, given the natural leanings of young people, they may win, not only the support of young people, but also the constituency needed to tackle the most sensitive political issues to save us from a legacy of bankruptcy. Only a real effort at X-communication will yield the political force necessary to make the American Dream a reality for America’s future.