The Generation Chasm

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The median American is 37.7 years old. The median voter is 52. The above numbers are ages. They belong to the Speaker of the House, House Majority Leader, House Majority Whip, and 3 of the 4 leading Democratic presidential candidates.

Not all Septuagenarians are created equally. Bernie Sanders is the most popular candidate with the youngest Democrats. Elizabeth Warren is the second best liked. This isn’t news. But as I was hacking through the data in a new set of early voting states by Change Research, there were a few surprises.

Democratic voters were asked how favorably they felt about the primary candidates, as well as a few other famous Democrats. In a same-party situation, I find the strongly/very favorable number the most interesting. It should far, far, far exceed strongly/very unfavorable.

Barack Obama is the most popular Democrat with other Democrats on the planet. He scored at 81% very favorable, 1% very unfavorable (+80). Keep that in mind as a benchmark. Among voters 18-34, he registers as +74. For the Over 65 crowd, +88. Now some others:

18-34 65+ All

Bernie +42 +9 +28

Joe +4 +25 +18

Liz +29 +57 +41

Kamala +16 +45 +33

Pete +24 +39 +33

Now examine this:

Bill +10 +28 +20

Hillary -4 +38 +16

Nancy -5 +49 +21

AOC +40 +41 +41

When I first started looking through these numbers, I questioned the validity of the survey. FiveThirtyEight rates Change Research as a C+ pollster. They have Pete Buttigieg at 25% in Iowa. He’s got a shot at winning the caucus, but the two other polls taken at the same time show the Mayor at 10% and 6%.

So I cross-referenced Nancy Pelosi’s overall favorability ratings among Democrats in a national survey taken at a similar time by the Economist/YouGov. It matches. The leading primary candidates are close enough. If these favorability figures are off, it’s not by that much. We’ll deal with Pete supposedly leading in Iowa on another day.

If we focus on these numbers, recent events make sense. Joe Biden starting every sentence with a noun, verb, and “my friend Barack.” The Democratic field moving further left than imaginable even a year ago. And AOC deciding she’s mad as hell at Nancy Pelosi and not going to take it anymore.

The supposed basis for a Biden candidacy is:

  1. He’s best able to defeat Trump
  2. Democratic voters are more moderate than commonly believed

Biden does still in fact poll better against Trump than any other Democrat. In each poll, when asked, Dem primary voters say they think he has the best chance of winning, even in polls Biden isn’t leading in. Surveys also indicate the primary electorate is split relatively evenly between far left and center-left.

If this were just a matter of ideology, Biden would stand on mostly solid ground. The catch is age. Politicians of his generation are toxic with Millennial and Gen Z voters. By generation, I mean political generation, not whether they’re older Baby Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, or younger Silent Generation, as Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and Biden are.

All of the above have existed in the D.C. power structure forever. Bernie may have been born three months before Pearl Harbor, but his political career, from the viewpoint of younger voters, began in 2015. Warren is roughly the same age as the Clintons. Again, she’s only existed as a public figure for a decade, beginning after Hillary’s first presidential run, and after Pelosi became speaker.

AOC is relevant to younger voters in a way the House leadership can’t be. Partly it’s delivery system, through Twitter and Instagram. Partly it’s language and outlook. The leadership is literally the age of these voters’ grandparents. She doesn’t need to worry about keeping the House majority and taking the Senate. They’re convinced it requires moderate candidates in purple and red districts/states.

Besides, she and her age cohort strongly believe Clinton-style relativism cost the presidency in 2016, and could again in 2020. To them, Bill is another dirty old man, with more even more ties to Jeffrey Epstein than Trump has, not the guy who left office as one of the more popular presidents in American history.

Pelosi is correct when she points out AOC and her ‘squad’ only have 4 votes among 435. She’s very wrong about who has the hammer. The most important endorsement in the primary belongs to the 29-year-old from the Bronx, not Pelosi.

AOC organized for Sanders in 2016. She’s said nice things about Warren. She’s also said nominating Biden will lead to defeat. Ocasio-Cortez is not an unmitigated positive for Democrats in November 2020. She has plenty of detractors among Trump hating right-leaning Independents. There’s a really good argument that moving too far in her direction will hurt in a general election.

That’s then. A nominee gets chosen first. And inside the confines of the Democratic Party, she’s a total positive to those she favors, and a curse to those who cross her. As we saw in the data, while older Democrats are very much pro-Pelosi, they like AOC too. Younger Democrats love her and see the painful past in Pelosi.

If the feud between the two most important people in the House continues unabated, or merely flares up again close to the start of voting, it’s poison for Biden. He doesn’t need to win the most votes of younger voters, but he can’t get completely shut out and survive.

Tip O’Neill once said “all politics is local.” That was a gauzy time in the past. When Republicans and Democrats sat down peacefully to negotiate changes in Social Security, and Biden was nearing the end of his second Senate term.

Now all politics are presidential. Or on social media. Back in O’Neill’s day, the Soviet Union ran through a series of geriatric leaders. This pre-Gorbachev group kept dying before Ronald Reagan could meet with them. They fought against change desperately. In retrospect, they were holding on against the inevitable. That’s how it feels for Pelosi, et al today.

This is AOC’s party now. Whether the speaker or national polling leader like it or not (hint: they don’t). Neither has lasted this long by giving up easily. Their survival is dependent on recognizing what they can and cannot control.

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