Asians have the highest household income, highest education levels and the highest married family rate in America. They should have been a lock for the Republicans. Why did they vote overwhelmingly for Obama?
By: Neil Howe
On November 7, Americans were just beginning to assess the magnitude and meaning of President Obama’s ’12 victory when the Dow dropped over 300 points, its largest daily plunge of the year. The next day, November 8, it plunged again. It’s almost as if history doesn’t want to give us time to contemplate what happened. But now, at the risk ignoring the rush of events, let’s take a moment to put some closure on the election season.
Overall, as my readers know, the ‘12 results were pretty much what I anticipated.
I said the election would be a lot closer than in ‘08, but that Obama would win. The margin would be narrow, but the outcome would not be an all-night cliffhanger. That turned out to be about right. In ’08, Obama won by 7.3 percent of the popular vote, just about the median margin for all elections in U.S. history. (It was just shy of FDR’s margin over Thomas Dewey in 1944.) In ’12, Obama won by only 2.3 percent of the popular vote, which is the fifth smallest since 1900. (It was just under George W. Bush’s 2.5 percent margin against John Kerry, an election that was also considered a squeaker.)
I said there would be a 15-to-25 percentage point gap between under-30 young vote for Obama and the 65+ senior vote for Obama. In ’08, the gap was 21 percent; and in ’12, a preliminary survey by Pew projected it would be 20 percent. In fact, according to exit polls, the ‘12 gap between young and old was 16 points. So age polarization did moderate slightly. From ’08 to ’12, all age groups voted about 3 percent more for Romney. But Millennials tipped somewhat more steeply to Romney (about 5 percent) and the Silent a bit less. Let me go back to the postwar history of the presidential “generation gap” and update the Pew chart here. My edits in red show the actual ’12 exit poll results.
Why the moderation—or shrinkage—of the Obama youth margin from ‘08? Pre-election surveys identifying this youth shift away from Obama found that it was generated mostly by young whites (especially non-college young whites who have been hit hardest by the post-2008 economy) and only to a lesser extent by young minorities. The CIRCLE crosstabs on the exit poll, shown below, confirm that this is indeed what happened. Note that this time, unlike in ’08, the majority of young whites (51 percent) voted for the GOP.
This should not be a surprise. Unlike McCain, who struck many Millennials in ’08 as simply “too old,” Romney came across as more youthful and did not present the same obvious age contrast with Obama. Also, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Millennials are attracted to Romney’s cool, analytical, consensus-seeking persona—just as they have been attracted to many of these same qualities in Obama. The huge positive shift to Romney among under-50 whites after the first debate was largely attributed to the popular discovery that Romney was not an eccentric hothead like McCain or committed culture warrior like Rick Perry. This discovery brought Romney back into the race and hugely complicated Team Obama’s campaign strategy. Ultimately, however, it was not enough to put Romney over the top.
Although I’ve reported on several surveys pointing to declining youth enthusiasm for the election, I’ve also insisted that the Millennial Generation is destined to be a civic force to be reckoned with. My entire generational model points in that direction. True to my model, Millennials pulled through—surprising many who had predicted they would stay home. In fact, according to the latest CIRCLE estimates, the ‘12 youth voter participation rate (at least 49 percent, the count is not over yet) was nearly as strong as it was in ’08 (52 percent). This rate is already higher than ’04 (48 percent) and much higher than in the last election in which Gen-Xers totally filled the under-30 age bracket (1996: 37 percent).
In ’12 as in ’08, the youth vote determined the outcome—meaning that if the under-30 vote had simply split 50-50, McCain and Romney would have won. This cannot be said of any election earlier than 2008, going all the way back to the 1930s. The youth vote likewise determined the outcome of all the major battleground states that went this time to Obama: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Many who expected a GOP victory clearly hoped that a lot fewer youth voters would show up at the polls this year. This did not happen. Or, if it did happen to some degree, declining excitement probably kept home precisely those young voter categories (noncollege white males) who would have been least likely to vote for Obama. Either way, no advantage for Team Romney.
More generally, the ’12 results showed that the Democrats were mostly right, and the Republicans mostly wrong, about the composition of the turnout. The GOP-ridiculed “D+6” model turned out to be dead on. Also, futures markets like Intrade once again demonstrated their uncanny ability to hone in on the most likely outcome, even when real-time voter surveys were jumping all around. Conservatives who normally praise the virtues of markets should have known this all along.
Let me turn to two further perspectives on the results—income and ethnicity. Each sheds some interesting light on where Romney went wrong and why he fell short.
First, income. As discussed in a previous post, a major Pew survey recently revealed that the significant overall voter shift away from Democratic (and toward Republican) party identification over the last four years has been generated entirely by lower- and middle-income voters. Reason: They have been hardest hit by the economy. Affluent voters, by contrast, actually lean more to Obama and the Democrats in 2012 than in 2008. For Romney to win, it was absolutely essential for him to exploit this opening and harness this disaffection. He had to persuade these voters that the Obama economy had failed them and had stripped them of their security, dignity, and independence. And he had to make his biggest gains (relative to ’08) among lower income brackets.
In this effort he failed. The GOP preference by income bracket in ’12 was even steeper (slightly) than in ’08. Among > $100K voters, Romney won 54 percent; among < $50K voters, he won 38 percent. Compared to McCain in ’08, Romney did better over $100K and worse under $50K. To be sure, Romney faced some unique challenges in appealing to lower-income America—starting with his image as a very wealthy Wall Street wheeler-dealer. But these were surmountable. (Obama too is regularly criticized as an elitist Ivy League legal theorist, yet over time he has learned to handle the issue deftly.) What killed Romney was not the image, but rather the substance he regularly delivered that perfectly matched the image. Notorious example: the surreptitiously taped “47 percent” monologue, which was exactly the wrong message and which remained attached to Romney until the end of the campaign. The remark did untold damage. At long last, Jimmy Carter’s humiliating 1980 loss to the GOP was avenged by his grandson!
Second, ethnicity. And here I’m not sure I have the answers. Romney was the decisive favorite of all white Americans (59 percent). He was even the decisive favorite of all white American women (56 percent). Yet Romney was also distinctly unpopular among nonwhites: He got the vote of only 27 percent of Hispanics, 26 percent of Asians, and 6 percent of African-Americans. Despite his better overall showing compared to McCain in ‘08, Romney actually lost 4 points among Hispanics and (incredibly) 11 points among Asians.
What’s going on here? Of course, everyone points to John McCain’s and George W. Bush’s conciliatory stance on immigration reform as one reason they didn’t suffer as badly at the hands of minority voters. Maybe. But I don’t think that’s a complete explanation. Romney and Obama actually agree on most of the basics of immigration reform—and though minority immigrants widely approve of Obama’s Dream Act and selective enforcement policy, they also know about his relentless deportation agenda. (Obama has deported more immigrants than any other President.)
I think something deeper, more cultural is at work. An 11 percent decline among Asians? That’s a catastrophe for the GOP. Asians are not known to obsess over immigration reform. They exceed whites in median household income. They are socially conservative, aspire to own property, and admire successful business leaders. In recent elections, I haven’t found one in which they didn’t give the GOP at least 40 percent of their vote. In 1996, when Dole lost badly to Clinton, Asians actually preferred Dole to Clinton, 48 to 43 percent. So what happened in 2012?
Perhaps this is where Romney’s Mormonism ultimately hurt him—not, as once expected, among white evangelicals (who ended up ignoring theology and voting for him anyway), but among nonwhite minorities (who could not look past the long LDS heritage as a white-only church). Again, I am simply suggesting possibilities. I welcome your suggestions.
We can make two fairly certain predictions for how Romney’s defeat is going to play out for the future of the GOP and for the Republican candidates likely to be running in 2016. One prediction is generational. Romney is likely to be the last Boomer to run as the GOP Presidential candidate. After all, by nearly everyone’s post-mortem consensus, he was the ablest Boomer contender in ’12 and still he lost. In 2016, by contrast, a huge new influx of first-wave Gen-Xers will be flooding onto the GOP primary stage. They are smart, charismatic, and (mostly) have plenty of hands-on executive experience. I’m talking about Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz. And maybe we can add on late-wave Boomers (both born in 1959) Susana Martinez and Scott Brown.
To be sure, not all the these will run for the White House in ’16. And, of those who do, many have sharp edges and as-yet unvetted secrets that could prevent them from going all the way to nomination. But it is an impressive field, and the Democrats have nothing like it in the bull pen.
In fact, it’s easy to imagine a generational reversal in party candidates. The Democrats in 2016 could very well move back to a Boomer candidate (Hillary, we know you’ve been waiting!), who might encounter little serious competition from Xers. Meanwhile, the Republicans are clearly going to put an Xer at the top of their ticket. Moreover—and this is my second prediction—this Xer is very likely to be nonwhite or Hispanic. (Of the contenders listed above, three are Hispanic and two are Indian.) Given Romney’s exit polls, many GOP leaders will regard the elevation of a minority standard bearer for their party as not just a nice-thing-to-do, but as a must-thing-to-do.
1929 Crash, Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, Awakening, Ben Franklin, Boomer, Boston Tea Party, civil war, Crisis, debt, deficits, election, FDR, Fourth Turning, Generation X, generations, government spending, Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, High, household income, James Buchanan, Libertarians, Millenial, Neil Howe, net worth, Nomad, NYC, Obama, Propaganda, Prophet, Romney, Superstorm Sandy, Taxes, Unemployment, unfunded liabilities, Unraveling, Wall Street, William Strauss, WWII
“The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
Strauss & Howe wrote these words in 1997. They had predicted the arrival of another Crisis in this time frame in their previous book Generations, written in 1990. This wasn’t guesswork on their part. They understood the dynamics of how generations interact and how the mood of the country shifts every twenty or so years based upon the generational alignment that occurs as predictably as the turning of the seasons. The last generation that lived through the entire previous Crisis from 1929 through 1946 has virtually died off. This always signals the onset of the next Fourth Turning. The housing bubble and its ultimate implosion created the spark for the current Crisis that began in September 2008, with the near meltdown of the worldwide financial system. Just as the stock market crash of 1929, the election of Lincoln in 1860, and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 catalyzed a dramatic mood change in the country, the Wall Street created financial collapse in 2008 has ushered in a twenty year period of agony, suffering, war and ultimately the annihilation of the existing social order.
We have experienced the American High (Spring) from 1946 until 1964, witnessing America’s ascendancy as a global superpower. We survived the turbulent Consciousness Revolution Awakening (Summer) from 1964 until 1984, as Vietnam era protests morphed into yuppie era greed. The Long Boom/Culture Wars Unraveling (Fall) lasted from Reagan’s Morning in America in 1984 until the 2008 Wall Street/Federal Reserve spawned crash. The pessimism built to a crescendo as worry about rising violence and incivility, widening wealth inequality, and the splitting of the national consensus into extremes on the left and right, led the country into a winter of discontent. The Global Financial Crisis (Winter) has arrived in full fury and is likely to last until the late 2020’s. It will be an era of upheaval, financial turbulence, economic collapse, war, and the complete redefinition of society, as the existing corrupt status quo is swept away in the fury of powerful hurricane winds of change. History is cyclical and we’ve entered the most dangerous season, when the choices we make as a nation will have profound long lasting implications to the lives of future unborn generations.
The linear thinkers and so called progressives who believe that history charges relentlessly forward and human ingenuity overcomes all obstacles as the world becomes progressively richer, advanced, and humane ignore the lessons of history that have been re-written every 80 to 100 years for centuries. Generational theory is so simple that even an Ivy League intellectual economist, corrupt congressman, or CNBC anchor bimbo could grasp the basic concept. The four turnings in the ongoing cycle of history match a long human life. There is a reason we forget the lessons of the past. Those who remember the lessons die off after 80 years. The linear thinking status quo keep predicting an improving economy based upon their beliefs that the next fifteen years will proceed in a similar fashion to the last fifteen years. They refuse to acknowledge we’ve entered a new era that cannot be reversed to a previous point in time. Once you’ve experienced the harsh bitter winds of the Winter, you have to deal with months of depressing darkness, harsh conditions, and stormy weather before experiencing the return of the warm breezes of Spring. The tranquil days of autumn are long gone. This dynamic can be clearly visualized by comparing our economic situation in 2007, prior to entering this Fourth Turning, to our economic situation today:
End of Unraveling in 2007 versus fourth year of Crisis in 2012
- In 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.6%; 146 million people, or 63% of the working age population, were employed; and 78 million Americans were not in the labor force. Today, after three years of “recovery”, the unemployment rate is 7.9%; 143 million people, or 58.8% of the working age population are employed; and 88 million Americans are not in the labor force.
- Real median household income was $55,039 in 2007. It has fallen by 8.2% to $50,502 today.
- BLS reported inflation has risen by 12% since 2007. True inflation has risen at twice that rate.
- Median net worth in 2007 was $126,400. By 2010 it had fallen to $77,300, a 39% drop in three years. As of today, it may be a few thousand dollars higher as stock prices have risen and home prices have stopped falling.
- In 2007 there were 5.7 million existing homes sold at a median price of $218,900. Today there are 4.3 million existing homes being sold at a median price of $183,900. Over 1 million of these home sales are foreclosures or short sales, as 30% of all the homes with a mortgage in the country owe more than their house is worth.
- Federal government spending in 2007 was $2.73 trillion. Federal government spending today is $3.8 trillion, a 39% increase in five years. GDP in 2007 was $14.2 trillion. Today GDP is $15.8 trillion, an 11% increase in five years. Approximately 25% of the GDP increase is due to increased government spending.
- Government entitlement transfers totaled $1.7 trillion in 2007. Today they total $2.4 trillion, a 41% increase in five years. Interest income paid to senior citizens and savers totaled $1.25 trillion in 2007. Today interest income totals $985 billion, a 21% decrease in five years. Wall Street bankers needed the money to pay themselves bonuses, so Ben Bernanke obliged.
- The annual deficit in 2007 totaled $161 billion. Today, the annual deficit is $1.1 trillion. We add $3 billion per day to the national debt as a gift to unborn generations.
- The national debt in 2007 was $9 trillion. Today the national debt is $16.3 trillion, an 81% increase in five years. The national debt will reach $20 trillion during the next presidential term. Normalization of interest rates to 2007 levels would result in annual interest expense of $1 trillion, or 40% of current government revenues.
There is nothing normal about our current economic situation. The unfunded liabilities at the Federal, State and local levels of government accumulate to over $200 trillion. Do the facts detailed above lead you to believe we can return to pre-2007 normal in the near future, or ever? Not only has the economic situation of the country deteriorated enormously, the very culprits who created the disaster are more powerful than they were before the global catastrophe caused by their criminal risk taking. The largest Wall Street banks control 74% of all the deposits in the country, up from 66% in 2007, and double the levels from the mid-1990’s. These bastions of capitalism wield all of the power in this country, dictating who wins elections, who writes the laws, and who benefits from the distribution of wealth. Only in a corrupt, crony-capitalist, citadel of kleptocracy could the perpetrators of the greatest theft of national wealth in the history of mankind be rewarded with taxpayer financed bailouts, the ability to borrow an unlimited amount of fiat currency at 0% from a Central Bank they control, write the new banking regulations and be applauded by their corporate mainstream media for becoming even Too Bigger to Fail. This Fourth Turning will ultimately come down to a clash between the people and the Wall Street filth.
Those in power today are using their ample wealth and control over the legal, economic and political systems to pretend that an epic crisis does not beckon at our doorstep. Propaganda and media spin cannot avert the brutally hard choices that must be made over the next fifteen years. The existing system is unsustainable. It can either be changed by choice or after a complete collapse. We haven’t reached the point of regeneracy yet when civic purpose begins to strengthen. The outcome of this presidential election will determine the next phase of this Crisis. Strauss & Howe described the normal course of a crisis in 1997:
“A CRISIS arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. People support new efforts to wield public authority, whose perceived successes soon justify more of the same. Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside. A grim preoccupation with civic peril causes spiritual curiosity to decline. Public order tightens, private risk-taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline. Families strengthen, gender distinctions widen, and child-rearing reaches a smothering degree of protection and structure. The young focus their energy on worldly achievements, leaving values in the hands of the old. Wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.” - The Fourth Turning – Strauss & Howe
Clearly this country has not reached a common consensus and is split 50%/50% on most important issues. Debates about the role of government are waged with vitriolic passion, but the reality is that, as in past Fourth Turnings, the government has already assumed a greater level of power and control over our lives. The majority believe that government can protect them, provide for them, and pay their way. This is a delusion which will be revealed as fraudulent and mathematically impossible. The incompetent government preparation prior to Superstorm Sandy and the dysfunctional, bureaucratic and painfully slow response afterward are opening the eyes of many people. The decisions which are yet to be made are what kind of society shall we be and who will be required to sacrifice to achieve a positive outcome at the end of this Crisis. Turnings are driven by a mood change in the country and the constellation of generations at that point in time. The generations are now aligned as they always are during a Crisis:
- Boomers entering elderhood
- Gen-Xers entering midlife
- Millennials entering young adulthood
- Homelanders entering childhood
History does not repeat but it does rhyme, because of the cyclical nature of human experience. The specific events that drive this Crisis are unknowable, but the generational response to these events can be predicted with uncanny accuracy. Each generation will play its assigned role during this Crisis. The current generational configuration will propel events and create a feedback loop that will change the course of human history on a scale consistent with the Depression/World War II, the Civil War and the American Revolution.
“What will propel these events? As the saeculum turns, each of today’s generations will enter a new phase of life, producing a Crisis constellation of Boomer elders, midlife 13ers, young adult Millennials, and children from the new Silent Generation. As each archetype asserts its new social role, American society will reach its peak of potency. The natural order givers will be elder Prophets, the natural order takers young Heroes. The no-nonsense bosses will be midlife Nomads, the sensitive souls the child Artists. No archetypal constellation can match the gravitational of this one – nor its power to congeal the natural dynamic of human history into new civic purposes. And none can match its potential power to condense countless arguments, anxieties, cynicisms, and pessimisms into one apocalyptic storm.” - The Fourth Turning – Strauss & Howe
The mood of the country continues to blacken. A simmering anger boils beneath the surface of an everyday façade of normalcy. The middle class majority is being squeezed in a vice, with the rich powerful plutocrats on Wall Street and in Washington DC stealing their hard earned net worth through financial scams, the gutting of our industrial base and a tax system designed to benefit those who write the laws on one side and the parasitic willfully ignorant underclass that is sustained only through the extraction of taxes from the working middle class on the other side. Our society has become a hunger games tournament, with the few benefitting while the many scramble to survive. The stench of class warfare is in the air. The generational resentment and rage is palatable as the Millenial generation has taken on a trillion dollars of student loan debt at the behest of the Federal government, Wall Street and older generations, only to graduate into a jobless economy. The generational contract has been broken, as the older generations will not or cannot leave the workforce due to their own financial missteps. Younger generations are being denied entry level positions, even as the older generations expect them to fund their retirements and healthcare. This presidential election will only exacerbate the anger, disappointment, bitterness and fury among the populace, no matter who wins.
Prophets & Nomads
Can generational theory predict who will win the presidential election? Probably not, but based upon historical precedent, during times of Crisis the country usually turns to a Prophet generation leader who provides a new vision and summons the moral authority to lead. This leader may not have the right vision or have the backing of the entire population, but he is not afraid to take bold action. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was despised by many, but he boldly led the country during the last Crisis. Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election with only 39.8% of the popular vote, but he unflinchingly did whatever he thought was necessary to achieve victory and preserve the union. Prophet leaders like Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin offered the sense of moral urgency required to sustain the American Revolution. Strauss & Howe give a historical perspective on Prophet generations.
“Prophet generations are born after a great war or other crisis, during a time of rejuvenated community life and consensus around a new societal order. Prophets grow up as the increasingly indulged children of this post-crisis era, come of age as narcissistic young crusaders of a spiritual awakening, cultivate principle as moralistic mid-lifers, and emerge as wise elders guiding another historical crisis. By virtue of this location in history, such generations tend to be remembered for their coming-of-age passion and their principled elder stewardship. Their principle endowments are often in the domain of vision, values, and religion. Their best-known historical leaders include John Winthrop, William Berkeley, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. These were principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice, and wagers of righteous wars. Early in life, few saw combat in uniform; later in life, most came to be revered more for their inspiring words than for their grand deeds.” - The Fourth Turning – Strauss & Howe
Barack Obama was born in 1961. According to the Strauss & Howe generational distinctions, this makes him an early Gen-Xer. His life story matches that of the Nomad archetype. His chaotic early life, confused upbringing by an array of elders, frenetic alienated early adulthood as a community organizer, and his rise to power through his public speaking talent and pragmatic ability to achieve his agenda is a blueprint for a Nomad. Mitt Romney was born in 1947 and grew up during the American High. His childhood was idyllic and privileged. His moral Mormon youth as a missionary eventually devolved into his yuppie “greed is good” career at Bain Capital acquiring companies, making them more efficient (firing Americans & hiring Asians), and spinning them off, while siphoning millions in fees. He has tried to convince Americans to vote for him, based upon his business acumen and moral lifestyle, as the cure for what ails America. With the continued downward spiral of societal mood, record low trust in Congress and 60% of Americans thinking the country is on the wrong track, the odds should favor the Prophet candidate. The 40% of Americans who think the country is on the right track are a tribute to our awful government run public education system or are smoking crack.
The Barack Obama presidency has many similarities to the one-term presidencies of Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan. Both men were overwhelmed by rapidly deteriorating events, an inability to understand the true nature of the Crisis, and failure to inspire the American people to rally behind a common cause. Both men drifted off into obscurity and are overwhelmingly acknowledged as two of the least successful presidents. The men who succeeded them are ranked by historians at the top of the list, even though they are both despised by more libertarian minded citizens as proponents of big government solutions and control. Libertarians will not be happy with developments over the next fifteen years. This Crisis is an era in which America’s corrupt social order will be torn down and reconstructed from the ground as a reaction to the unsustainable financial pyramid scheme which is an existential threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic authority will revive, cultural manifestation will find a community resolution, and citizens will begin to associate themselves as adherents of a larger cluster.
Barack Obama has fallen short as a Crisis leader, just as Buchanan and Hoover fell short. Buchanan also tried to maintain the status quo and not address the key issues of the day – secession and slavery. His handling of the financial Panic of 1857 led to annual deficits that exceeded 13% of GDP during his entire presidency. His legacy is one of failure and hesitation. Hoover was a technocrat with an engineering background who failed to recognize the extent of the suffering by the American people during the early stages of the Great Depression. It is a false storyline that he did not attempt to use the power of the Federal government to address the economic crisis. Federal spending increased by over 20% during his term and he was running a deficit when Roosevelt assumed power. Hoover was an activist president who began the public works programs that FDR expanded and dramatically increased taxes on the rich and corporations in 1932.
Obama inherited a plunging economic situation and proceeded to make choices that will make this Crisis far worse than it needed to be. He has failed miserably in addressing the core elements of this Crisis that were foreseen by Strauss and Howe over a decade before the initial spark in 2008. Debt, civic decay, rising wealth inequality due to the rise of our plutocracy, and global disorder are the underlying basis for this Crisis. Obama’s response was to run record deficits driving the national debt skyward, failing to address the unfunded entitlement liabilities that loom on the horizon, bowing down before the Wall Street mobsters and paying their ransom demands, layering on more complexity and unfunded healthcare liabilities to an already teetering government system, and extending our policing the world foreign policy at a cost of $1 trillion per year. A Crisis requires a bold leader who makes tough choices and leads. Obama has proven to not be that leader. Based on historical precedent and the rapidly deteriorating mood of the country, it would be logical for the country to select Romney, a Prophet generation leader.
“Don’t think you can escape the Fourth Turning the way you might today distance yourself from news, national politics, or even taxes you don’t feel like paying. History warns that a Crisis will reshape the basic social and economic environment that you now take for granted. The Fourth Turning necessitates the death and rebirth of the social order. It is the ultimate rite of passage for an entire people, requiring a luminal state of sheer chaos whose nature and duration no one can predict in advance.” – Strauss & Howe - The Fourth Turning
No matter who wins the election, there will be no turning back. It isn’t Morning in America anymore. It is more like Midnight in America on a bitterly cold dark February night as the gale force winds begin to gust, foretelling the approach of an epic winter blizzard. There are no easy solutions. The opportunity to alleviate the impact of this Crisis was during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and we made all the wrong choices. Now we will pay the price. An era of depression and violence will be ushered in by an economic calamity that will make 2008 look like a minor blip. The next president will still be presiding over a country divided 50%/50%, with little or no common ground on most of the key issues that must be confronted. But, as we’ve seen in previous Crisis periods, bold leadership and history making decisions did not require consensus or even majority support. Only 10% of the colonial population drove the American Revolution. Lincoln was despised by half the country and not exactly loved by everyone in the North. FDR’s popular support progressively declined during his four terms in office. It is the Fourth Turning events, not the nation, which elevates the person to the apex of power. The regeneracy of the nation will occur during the next presidential term.
“Soon after the catalyst, a national election will produce a sweeping political realignment, as one faction or coalition capitalizes on a new public demand for decisive action. Republicans, Democrats, or perhaps a new party will decisively win the long partisan tug of war. This new regime will enthrone itself for the duration of the Crisis. Regardless of its ideology, that new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice. Regardless of its ideology, that new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice. Where leaders had once been inclined to alleviate societal pressures, they will now aggravate them to command the nation’s attention. The regeneracy will be solidly under way.” – Strauss & Howe - The Fourth Turning
The Millenial generation is coming of age faced with the burdens of $1 trillion of student loan debt, a stagnant job market clogged by the Boomer generation that can’t afford to retire because they never got around to saving, ever increasing taxes to fund the promises made to their elders by politicians, and an unfunded entitlement liability of $100 trillion for healthcare and pension benefits they will never see. The mathematical impossibility of sustaining our economic system is absolute. It will require courage, sacrifice, fortitude and a dramatic shift of our egocentric selfish culture to a culture of sustainability and caring about future generations. We’ve made many bad choices over the last few decades. Choices matter. These are the times that will try men’s souls. The choices we make as a nation over the next few years will determine whether this Fourth Turning ends in a renewal of our founding principles or tragedy. Glory or ruin – the choice is ours.
“Thus might the next Fourth Turning end in apocalypse – or glory. The nation could be ruined, its democracy destroyed, and millions of people scattered or killed. Or America could enter a new golden age, triumphantly applying shared values to improve the human condition. The rhythms of history do not reveal the outcome of the coming Crisis; all they suggest is the timing and dimension.” – Strauss & Howe - The Fourth Turning
The next stage of this Crisis is likely to be ignited by a downward spiral of societal trust caused by the next financial implosion, which is certain to occur. A world built upon debt, false promises, interconnected webs of deceitful derivatives, fiat currency backed only by the promises of lying politicians and captured central bankers, and a diminishing supply of easy to access natural resources, is hopelessly dependent upon the willful ignorance of the masses. As long as people want to be lied to rather than facing the truth, those in power can maintain the status quo. Once the jarring realization of reality overwhelms the propaganda and lies of the oligarchs, the battle for middle earth will begin. What will trigger the next phase of this Crisis? No one knows for sure, but based on the fault lines already evident, these are a possibility:
- The inevitable breakup of the European Union with the consequences of massive bank defaults in Europe triggering worldwide bank defaults as the interconnected trillions of derivatives are lit like a string of firecrackers.
- A sudden Greece like surge in interest rates on Japanese bonds results in a collapse of their debt ridden economic system, with reverberations throughout the world.
- The Middle East tinderbox explodes as Israel attacks Iran and the law of unintended consequences takes hold. Alliances and treaties would draw Turkey into war with Syria and Iran. Russia and China could side against the U.S. Iran and their vassals would unleash terrorist attacks and disruption of Middle Eastern oil would drive prices over $200 per barrel, crushing the American economy.
- A showdown on the debt ceiling and/or fiscal cliff results in a stock market crash, derailing the pitiful fledgling recovery created by Ben Bernanke’s QE to infinity measures.
- A tipping point is reached with regards to the amount of debt that can be accumulated by our Federal, State and Local governments. A cascade of defaults could lead to a loss of faith in the U.S. dollar and a surge in interest rates. The defaults and increased interest on the national debt could lead to mass depression or in a worst case scenario – hyperinflation.
- A large terrorist attack in one or more American cities would cause chaos, panic and fear, leading to more government control over our daily lives. This could trigger a counter response by those fed up with an overbearing government presence.
- A catastrophic natural disaster or series of natural disasters would reveal the fragile nature of our just in time economic system. A breakdown of our logistical and infrastructure systems would lead to chaos and mass hysteria as the citizens who believed their government leaders would keep them safe, secure, warm, and fed realized it was all a sham. Their leaders were in it for the power and riches, not looking out for the best interests of the common folk.
No one knows for sure what will trigger the next leg down during this Crisis, but I can guarantee you that things will not be getting better in the near future. Don’t believe the mainstream media or politicians who tell us life in the good old U.S. of A will be back to normal in the near future. And those who predict a long slow gentle decline of the American Empire that can be managed by the oligarchs are badly mistaken. That is not how things roll in a Fourth Turning. Transformative change, chaos, desperate measures, and total war will propel our nation through this cataclysmic saeculum and a positive outcome is not assured. An armed conflict – class war, sectional war, religious war, or war for oil – will be waged at some point and fought to the finish. Fourth Turning wars do not end inconclusively. Each Fourth Turning war has resulted in greater destruction and more horrendous numbers of human casualties. The trials and tribulations that await this nation over the next fifteen years will challenge every living generation to play their roles and bravely confront the tasks needed to reach a new High, just as their ancestors did.
“History offers no guarantees. Obviously, things could go horribly wrong – the possibilities ranging from a nuclear exchange to incurable plagues, from terrorist anarchy to high-tech dictatorship. We should not assume that Providence will always exempt our nation from the irreversible tragedies that have overtaken so many others: not just temporary hardship, but debasement and total ruin. Losing in the next Fourth Turning could mean something incomparably worse. It could mean a lasting defeat from which our national innocence – perhaps even our nation – might never recover.” – Strauss & Howe - The Fourth Turning
For those who doubt generational theory and believe history is a linear path of human progress, I would point to the last week of chaos, disarray, government dysfunction, and misery of those who didn’t prepare for Superstorm Sandy, as a prelude to the worst of this Crisis. The lack of preparation by government officials and citizens, death, destruction, panic, anger, helplessness and realization of how fragile our system has become is a perfect analogy to our preparation for this Fourth Turning. The brittleness of our infrastructure and lack of redundancy in our systems has left us vulnerable to any large storm. Building mansions yards from a dangerous unpredictable sea is akin to allowing Wall Street bankers to create interconnected financial derivatives which will ultimately result in a great worldwide flood that will obliterate billions of wealth. Going decades without upgrading our power grid, transportation systems, or storm protection is akin to allowing our unfunded entitlement liabilities to accumulate to such an extreme level that it will be impossible to honor and the coming storm will swamp those depending on those promises. The lack of foresight by citizens in having food, water, and backup sources of power and heat in case of an emergency is akin to the millions of people that have lived the good life in debt up to their eyeballs while never saving for a rainy day or their retirement. When the rainy day arrives they panic and demand to be saved by an inept bureaucratic government.
Winter has arrived. The gathering storm is about to strike. Are you prepared?
“Reflect on what happens when a terrible winter blizzard strikes. You hear the weather warning but probably fail to act on it. The sky darkens. Then the storm hits with full fury, and the air is a howling whiteness. One by one, your links to the machine age break down. Electricity flickers out, cutting off the TV. Batteries fade, cutting off the radio. Phones go dead. Roads become impossible, and cars get stuck. Food supplies dwindle. Day to day vestiges of modern civilization – bank machines, mutual funds, mass retailers, computers, satellites, airplanes, governments – all recede into irrelevance. Picture yourself and your loved ones in the midst of a howling blizzard that lasts several years. Think about what you would need, who could help you, and why your fate might matter to anybody other than yourself. That is how to plan for a saecular winter. Don’t think you can escape the Fourth Turning. History warns that a Crisis will reshape the basic social and economic environment that you now take for granted.” – Strauss & Howe - The Fourth Turning
Neil Howe details why Obama will win. Essentially, Romney is a clueless candidate.
Regrettably, I’ve been away from this blog too long—the result of too much travelling and a bit too much work. I’m hoping for an easier fall and winter.
Seven weeks have passed since I looked at the generational dynamics behind the Obama-Romney contest, when the overall balance seemed fairly even. Now, it’s tipping clearly if not decisively for Obama. RCP currently shows a 3.3 percent national margin for Obama, but this probably understates the incumbent’s advantage: RCP records not a single national survey giving Romney even a minimal margin since Gallup’s tracking poll in late August. Global futures markets like InTrade now tip 70/30 for Obama. (If you’re confident Romney is going to win, you can at least expect to make some money.) And for true gloom and doom for Romney, take a look at this new Pew survey. It shows Obama ahead by 8 percentage points overall among likely voters, and leading Romney on almost every issue and every scale of likeability.
The last month has been genuinely and relentlessly awful for Mitt Romney.
First came his selection of Paul Ryan as VP, which reinforced the male-white-accounting-econowonk side of the ticket (not exactly where Romney needed reinforcement—and there were so many great alternative VP picks roughly Ryan’s age) while tying Romney to a very specific plan to cut the cost of Medicare. Nothing could have pleased Axelrod and Plouffe and others in the Democratic HQ more than to change the topic of conversation from how slowly the economy is recovering under Obama to how much Romney wants to throw seniors over the cliff. I actually agree with most of the fundamental elements of the Ryan plan (incentives and budgets for health-care providers are surely coming, like them or not). But hey Romney, wait until you’re President and appoint Ryan as your director of OMB or your head of CMS. But add him to your ticket? Probably not the best idea.
Second, there was the GOP’s lukewarm convention. The Democrats’ wasn’t much either, but then again they didn’t have to prove anything: Everybody already knows who the Obamas and Clintons are. The GOP had to persuade the public why the presidential mantle of office should be transferred to this relative unknown. They needed to put the Democrats on trial for keeping America mired in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. They needed to excoriate the other party for the suffering of America’s unemployed and underemployed middle- and lower-income citizens (just as the Democrats surely would have done to the GOP had a Republican been the incumbent). But the Romney campaign did very little of this. Instead, they talked about budget-balancing, too much regulation, and Obama’s “anti-business” attitudes. Wow. And with the growing danger of war or broader war mounting in the Mideast and East Asia, the GOP could have mounted a principled critique, say, of Obama’s track record on his policies of engagement with Iran, Russia, and China. But no. Virtually nothing at all on national security issues, which subsequently (and remarkably) allowed the Democrats at their convention to look responsible in an area where their party has been perennially vulnerable.
OK, a missed opportunity with the convention. But (and here’s number three), Team Romney subsequently failed to follow up with any of the policy strategy and detail he “didn’t have time for” earlier. Instead, he has been dogged by gaffes and garbled misstatements in poorly staged impromptu interviews—while getting rhetorically outmaneuvered at every turn by Team Obama. The worst fumble of all was his off-the-record suggestion that the growing share of Americans who pay no federal income taxes (“47 percent”) are essentially lost to the Republican Party. Mindboggling. This poor, struggling, laid-off, and dependent 47 percent in fact constitutes a growing constituency for the GOP (a point I will return to shortly). Rather than express outrage that today’s horrible economy has stripped them of their livelihoods and independence, Romney is throwing them under the bus.
It’s almost as though Romney is channeling Herbert Hoover and can’t recall Ronald Reagan. When he tries to talk like a conservative, George Will recently commented, Romney sometimes sounds like one of those robotic German spies in vintage WWII movies: He’s memorized lots of facts, but he’ll never know who Stan Musial is.
Fourth, and most recently, comes Ben Bernanke’s announcement of QE3 and an “indefinite” guarantee of near-zero interest rates, which was soon followed by a sizeable surge in the Dow. For the first time—even though the real economy hasn’t done much of anything–Obama is matching or even overtaking Romney in his perceived ability to handle the economy. A very large and somewhat amusing gap has now appeared in how political partisans now view the economy. Back in early August, 71 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats said they were hearing “mostly bad news about the economy.” Today, 60 percent of Republicans continue to say that—but only 15 percent of Democrats. That’s a 45-point spread.
Is the economy doing much better? I say no. I don’t think it’s doing better at all. (Indeed, I think it’s likely we have already entered a new recession and just don’t know it yet.) So I think the GOP—which is now hopping mad at Bernanke for giving the economy a “sugar-water high” just weeks before the election—is quite mistaken about Bernanke’s motives. Chairman Ben did not go “all in” with QE3 because he wants to be re-chosen as Fed head by Obama. He did it because he knows the economy is in really deep trouble. (I will come back to this in another post.)
So what are Mitt’s odds at this point? Quite honestly, they aren’t great, and if I had to make a wager right now I would certainly bet on a modest Obama victory—a smaller voter margin than 2008, but not a cliffhanger. As for Congress, the House will certainly remain in GOP hands (Pelosi’s sudden optimism seems delusional) and the Senate will probably be split 50-50 right down the middle.
Of course, a comeback is possible. It’s a tall order. For Romney to rally and win, some combination of the following three-and-a-half things will have to happen.
(1) Romney has a great debate performance. Without it, he’s toast. With it, he could get back into the running. The boost could be big precisely because voter expectations at this point are so low. And because lots of voters still don’t know him very well—aside from the gaffes they hear about in the news. According the surveys, voters are really looking forward to the debates: Fully two-thirds now say they will be “very” or “somewhat” helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for, the largest share since Clinton-versus-Bush, Sr., in 1992. Keep in mind as well that Romney got plenty of practice debating in the primaries and often performed very well in them, showing plenty of wit, humor, and grace under fire.
(2) National security goes critical, which will probably hurt Obama. It’s hard to recall a recent election–maybe Clinton-Dole in 1996?—in which foreign affairs has played such a minor role. Which is incredible when you think we now have 70,000 troops fighting in Asia (and getting shot at and killed by our own uniformed “allies”) together with thousands more fighting more surreptitiously, with and without deadly predators, in dozens of other far-flung nations. And the temperature is now getting hotter on most fronts, with Islamist violence clearly rising, Syria gripped in civil war, Egypt and much of North Africa run by new and unstable regimes, Iran and Israel (and inevitably the United States) near the brink of war in the Persian Gulf, and, most recently, a new risk of war in the China Sea. At some point, geopolitics may well burst into 2012 election like a wild and uninvited guest–to the White House at least, which will likely be put mostly on the defensive. Romney may or may not be able to leverage the opportunity. In any case, Obama doesn’t have enough time left for a “wag the dog” response.
(3) Another bad shoe drops on the economy, which will certainly hurt Obama. Obama “owns” current economic performance in 2012 nearly as much as Hoover “owned” it in 1932. Most Democratic partisans understand this, explaining their desire to play up positive news and to rejoice at the Fed-triggered revival in the Dow. Voters mostly think that Obama is trying hard, and so long as GDP and employment are growing ever so slightly (unlike 1932, obviously), they may go along with his argument that he is at least much better than the GOP alternative. But what if these numbers, which are now merely flatlining, suddenly turn decisively down between now the election, raising new and urgent talk of yet another recession? Perceptions about Obama’s “slow progress” and “incomplete” grade on the economy would, in this case, quickly shift—on the issue that everyone agrees is most on voters’ minds.
I promised three-and-a-half things, so let me add one more consideration that is related to the condition of today’s economy and is more speculative. I want to talk for a moment about class and income deprivation, and how these may feed into a new sort of partisanship.
To mention class, of course, is to raise perceptions that nearly everyone figures work against the GOP. And a recent Pew report (“Yes, the Rich are Different”) makes it clear just how tough it is, once the words “rich” and “poor” are mentioned, for most voters to say much that’s flattering about the GOP.
The report, which is well worth reading for its own sake, tries to analyze how Americans think about class. When most Americans are simply asked what they think about “the rich,” the responses reflect an revealing mix of praise and damnation. On the other hand, most Americans agree that rich people are more “intelligent” and more “hardworking” than the average American. (More “hardworking” is, I think, a new development: Fifty years ago I’m quite sure most Americans would not have said that.) On the other hand, most Americans also believe that the rich are much more likely to be more “greedy” and “dishonest” than the average American.
Yet it’s when the report assesses changes over time, especially from 2008 to 2012, that its findings really tip hard against the GOP. Point (1): Americans across-the-board, in both parties, feel that since 2008 the gap between the rich and poor has been widening. Point (2): Most Americans, again in both parties, feel this widening is a bad thing for our country. Point (3): Most think that the Republicans will help mostly the rich and that the Democrats will help mostly the poor and middle class. Point (4): Most think point (3) is especially true for Mitt Romney (at least, those who knew enough about Romney to have an opinion). This is a veritable syllogism of bad news for the Romney camp.
So now let me bring your attention to another Pew survey, which appeared at nearly the same time: “A Closer Look at the Parties in 2012: GOP Makes Big Gains among White Working-Class Voters.” It comes to conclusions which, while not contradicting the other report, point in a totally different direction. It’s fascinating to contemplate these two reports side by side.
The report starts with the unsurprising finding that total voter identification by party has faded somewhat for the Democrats since 2008 (from 51 to 48 percent) and has gained somewhat for the GOP (from 39 to 43 percent). Not including “leaners,” the GOP has a net gain of 3 percentage points. Yet here’s the surprise: More than all of this total gain for the GOP has occurred in the lowest income brackets. Among the highest income brackets, the Democrats have actually gained share.
The report shows, in addition, that minorities at all ages are just about as Democrat-favoring in 2012 as in 2008 (and more than in 2004), while nearly all the Democrat identification losses are among whites–and virtually all of these losses are among lower-income whites. (High-income whites are just as pro-Obama today as in 2008.) In 2008, whites were strong pro-GOP in every income bracket above $50,000. In 2012, they are strong pro-GOP in every bracket above $30,000.
The same holds true if you substitute education for income. College-plus America (with a four-year degree or more) is more pro-Democratic in 2012 than it was in 2008; college-minus America (everybody else) is more pro-GOP.
You’re welcome to view the crosstab data yourself, graciously provided by Pew. Let me summarize the main findings in the following graphic.
So how do we make sense of these very different perspectives? My own view is that, yes, a sense of class awareness—and class division—has grown since 2008 in ways that tarnish the image of the GOP in eyes of America’s have-nots and have-lesses. But these are also the Americans who have been hurt the worst over the last four years in unemployment, lost income, lost wealth, and foreclosed homes. (See the new annual CBO report on income and poverty for the gory details.) Their sense of class grievance is overweighed by their sense of performance failure on the party now in the White House: This is Obama’s economy, he failed, it really hurts, and I don’t want four more years of this. Wealthy Americans just aren’t feeling the “really hurts” part.
Overall, from 2008 to 2012, the share of all Americans who call themselves “lower” or “lower-middle” class has grown from 25 to 32 percent. (This itself is a disturbing finding, again brought to us by Pew Research.) More than all of that 7 percentage point increase has gone to the GOP. The share of GOP supporters who call themselves “lower class” has jumped from 13 to 23 percent while the “lower class” share of Democratic supporters has risen much less (from 29 to 33 percent).
Moreover, areas that do not traditionally vote Democratic, but swung blue for Obama, appear to be swinging back the most in this election. The Midwest, South, and Mountain regions show large declines of 6 to 9 points in net support for Democrats over Republicans, while traditionally bluer regions like New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast show little or no decline. (This is reflected in the rural/urban split in my table.) In other words, traditionally Republican voters who “took a chance” on Obama and are hurting in today’s economy may be feeling buyers’ remorse.
Whether all this affects the outcome of the election is uncertain. Clearly, the aftermath of the Great Recession provides the GOP with some real opportunities for a full-throated populist message. Just as clearly, Mitt Romney is probably the candidate least equipped to deliver such a message. The “47 percent” miscue says it all. And for this reason, the GOP is now likely to lose the election. (You notice that I called this merely “half a point” for Romney.)
Yet there are other implications likely to follow from this growing two-way rip tide of class tension in America. Ominously, it may portend a further widening of the blue-red polarization of America once the 2012 exit polls are counted, with a growing regional and urban-rural split in voter preferences. We may see the disappearance of the “purple” states that appeared in 2008, and the reappearance of more bright-blue and bright-red states. By 2016, assuming Obama wins, a crowded and all-Gen-X field of GOP primary contestants may choose to tack far more in the populist direction than did McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012.
And what about voting by generation? The huge generational gap remains: The Silent will swing way to the GOP this year, and the Millennials will swing way to the Democrats. But on top of this preference, there is certain to be a distinct class twist. You can expect the huge anti-Obama margin among seniors to acquire an extra passion among the hard-beaten, Tea-Party, “heartland” edge. Likewise, you can expect the huge pro-Obama margin among young adults to pick up its greatest energy among collegians and among affluent and urban young professionals. According to the New York Times’ recent feature story on non-college Millennials, many of them are struggling but few of them plan on voting for Obama. More to the point, however, few of them plan to vote for Romney either—or even feel they are in any way on his radar screen.
Neil puts the 2012 election into a generational perspective. If you are looking for Neil to pick a winner, read no further. He’s an academic at heart and never tells you what he thinks will happen. But, he supplies plenty of data for you to make up your mind. Based on his breakdown of voters by generation it seems that the Millenials will decide this election. They are still strongly in Obama’s camp, but their enthusiasm for Obama has waned. If they don’t vote in significant numbers or if Romney can split the young white vote, the election would go to Romney. The old farts are strongly in Romney’s corner. GenX is split down the middle. The yuuts will decide this election.
Pundits have long been predicting that the presidential election will be much closer and much meaner in 2012 than it was in 2008. Closer it now is. According to the RCP Poll Average, the race is now a virtual tie: Incumbent Obama now leads by a mere 1.8 percent over Romney, whereas challenger Obama led McCain by 7.6 percent exactly four years ago. It will certainly revolve around a very different array of issues—much less argument about the war on terror and GOP performance, and a lot more about the stagnating economy and Democratic performance.
In one respect, however, the next election will be a replay of the last: There will be a historically large divide in the preferences of younger voters (under 30) versus older voters (65+). In 2008, this divide (21 percentage points) was wider than in any election since the advent of age-bracketed voting data in the 1960s. The second-biggest divide (16 percentage points) was back in 1972, when nearly half of all young voters voted for McGovern while older voters went overwhelmingly for Nixon.
I’ve been tracking generational leanings in the polls pretty carefully. The Pew Research Center has issued several reports (most notably, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election) exploring this divide, and Time followed up with its own cover story (“The New Generation Gap”). More recently, Mike and Morley, Forbes, The New York Times, and many others have also weighed in.
Bottom line: Every generation is today a bit more favorable toward Obama than they were in 2010 and a good deal less favorable than in 2008. The partisan gap between the Democrat-leaning young and the Republican-leaning old, however, remains as strong as ever—at around 20 percent.
Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats. This fall, the media focus may shift. The big story could be how and why today’s angry, aging Silent Generation put the Republicans over the top. The relevant parallel here is 1972, when Nixon was able to split the young Boomer vote with McGovern—and then crush McGovern with all voters over age 30. (Nixon’s popular margin in 1972, 23.2 percent of the electorate, is the fourth largest in U.S. history.) Romney, of course, cannot hope for Nixon’s margin. But the basic logic still stands. Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote; he just has to contain youth losses enough so that his huge advantage among older voters puts him ahead.
The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, each with a different collective life story shaped by its own location in history. Let’s take a look at how each of these stories is likely to determine the outcome. (Throughout, I will borrow shamelessly from Pew’s wonderful cohort-tracking research and graphics.)
Because this piece turned out to be pretty long, I’m going to break it into two posts. This post will look at the generations themselves. The next will look beyond generations to the election outcome.
At the very elder edge of the electorate is the G.I. GENERATION, born between 1901-24. (Sample leaders: John Kennedy, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr.) With its youngest members now age 87 and older, the G.I.s today comprise just 2 percent of likely voters. Except during the late 1960s and 1970s, this “greatest generation” has always heavily favored the Democrats, having come of age as huge supporters of the “big government” presidency of FDR. Indeed, in every election from 1994 to 2004, the peers of Jimmy Stewart were more likely than younger Americans to vote Democratic. [See the “Roosevelt” chart on this page from the Pew study.] Even in 2008, according to Gallup, Obama ran almost even with McCain among these overwhelmingly white 80+ voters—better than he did with any other age bracket over 40. Apparently, generation trumps age when it comes to racial bias. Prediction for G.I.s in 2012: slight edge (3 percent) to the Democrats.
Now let’s turn to the “young old.” Dominating the ranks of retirees is the SILENT GENERATION (born 1925-42, today age 69 to 86), comprising 13 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Robert & Ted Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, John McCain.) Coming of age during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies, when Americans generally were voting Republican, the young, conformist Silent leaned more Republican than the rest. While the Silent produced nearly all of the most famous civil-rights leaders and “good government” reformers of the post-war era, they have never favored a strong executive (no Silent has ever been elected President) and have tended to return to their GOP roots as they have grown older. In seven of the last nine elections, they have voted more heavily than other Americans for Republicans. [See the “Truman” and “Eisenhower” charts on this page.]
Since 2008, the Silent’s pro-GOP tendency has widened considerably, along with their unhappiness with the direction of the country. Polls show the Silent are upset not just because they are “angry” at government (they are twice as likely as Millennials to say this), but also because they are “uncomfortable” with positions they associate with younger Obama Democrats on issues such as immigration, marriage, homosexuality, religion, and the Internet. The Silent are the least-immigrant generation (per capita) in American history, and they grew up at a time when the rules of life were clear and simple. Today they are disoriented by the bewildering diversity of today’s younger generations, and they can’t figure out what the new rules are.
Most Silent recognize that are doing well economically compared to younger Americans. But they worry that America is losing its sense of exceptional “greatness” and gaining an addiction to endless public debt—faults they attribute more to Democrats than to Republicans. Many fear the nation is headed back toward the Hard Times they witnessed in their childhood. According to recent Gallup surveys, the Silent favor Romney by 14 percentage points. Prediction for the Silent in 2012: large margin (15 percent) to the Republicans.
Occupying midlife and already surging past age 65 is the BOOM GENERATION (born 1943-60, today age 51 to 68), today comprising 31 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Bill & Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Condoleeza Rice.) Boomers came of age during the social and cultural upheavals that rocked America during the late ‘60s and ‘70s—giving them a fixation on vision and values that defines them even to this day as a generation of individualists and culture warriors (left versus right, “blue” versus “red”). As they grow older, Boomers increasingly call themselves “conservative,” but not necessarily Republican.
First-wave Boomers (today in their 60s) have more years of education than younger Boomers, have done better economically, vote more reliably, gravitate to humanist or mainstream churches, and vote more for Democrats. Last-wave Boomers (today in their 50s) experienced a rapid fall in SAT scores and college attendance, lag far behind first-wavers economically, vote less often, veer toward atheism or “born-again” evangelicalism, and vote more for Republicans. In recent elections, first-wave Boomers have tilted to the Democrats; their younger brothers and sisters have favored the GOP. [See the “Kennedy/Johnson,” “Nixon,” and “Ford/Carter” charts on this page.] In recent months, Gallup shows Boomers favoring Romney by about 5 percentage points. Prediction for the Boomers in 2012: medium edge (5 percent) to the Republicans, with red-leaning last-wavers slightly overpowering blue-leaning first-wavers.
Today’s emerging leaders and the parents of most school-age kids belong to GENERATION X (born 1961-81, today age 30 to 50). Gen Xers now comprise 35 percent of likely voters, a slightly larger share than Boomers. Gen X’s share should be much larger, but their tendency to vote less often than older generations dilutes the impact of their raw numbers. (Sample leaders: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal.) The left-alone children of the Consciousness Revolution who later came of age during an era that stressed free agency, personal ownership, and survivalism, Gen Xers have mixed feelings about the two parties. Xers like the social and cultural liberalism of Democrats (whatever “works for me” is perfect), but they also like the economic conservatism of the GOP (hey, don’t even think about picking my pocket!).
Like Boomers, they show a strong political trend from oldest to youngest, but it’s in the opposite direction. First-wave Xers, born in the early 1960s, first voted during the early Reagan years and have thereafter leaned heavily to the GOP. (Just over 70 percent of today’s state governors and members of Congress born from 1961 to 1965 are Republican—the biggest partisan tilt of any five-year cohort group.) Late-wave Xers came of age with Clinton and now lean more toward the Democratic Party. [See the “Reagan/Bush” and “Clinton” charts on this page.] According to recent Gallup polls, Generation X favors Obama by 1 percentage point. Prediction for Gen Xers in 2012: dead even, with GOP-leaning first-wavers exactly neutralizing Democratic-leaning last-wavers.
Finally comes the youngest generation of voters, the adult members of the MILLENNIAL GENERATION (born 1982-93, today age 18 to 29), comprising 18 percent of likely voters. (As yet, they have no national political leaders.) Twenty years ago, they were the special and fussed-over “Friends of Barney.” Today, they’re telling older Americans to share their toys and put a smile on their face. For Millennials, the team comes first: They are more likely than older voters to favor strong communities, urge consensus solutions, trust “big government,” and shrug at paranoia over privacy. With their trademark confidence, Millennials embrace many of the social trends (related to race, ethnicity, religion, homosexuality, and the Internet) that older voters find threatening. Millennials are the least likely to believe such trends undermine patriotism or family cohesion. They are the most likely to be optimistic about America’s long-term future.
This outlook puts Millennials decisively in the Democratic camp, with roughly two-thirds of them (66 to 32 percent) voting for Obama over McCain in 2008 and (according to Gallup) a smaller yet still impressive margin of three-fifths of them favoring Obama over Romney today. [See the “Bush/Obama” chart on this page.] The big question is whether the waning enthusiasm Millennials now show in re-electing Obama—combined with the extra fervor Silent and Boomers show in defeating him—will allow the GOP to prevail. Nonwhite Millennials are as overwhelmingly pro-Obama in 2012 as they were in 2008 (roughly a 60 percentage point margin). Yet Democrats should worry about the recent Pew finding that, among white Millennials, the 10 percentage point margin for Obama in 2008 has been fading away and nearly disappearing over the past year. If young whites split anywhere close to 50-50 in 2012 (remember, non-Latino whites still comprise 60 percent of this generation), then it hardly matters what young minorities do: The GOP will possess an almost insuperable advantage. Prediction for Millennials in 2012: very large margin (20 percent) to the Democrats, led by a 4-to-1 advantage among young minorities.
It’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future. In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, they are still outnumbered by two larger generations of voters (Gen X and Boom), and they may well be outworked by a more energized generation of seniors (the Silent). The young can sometimes lose elections, and lose them badly. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.
Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008. As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young “peacenik” Democrats who once voted for McGovern. That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.
If you do all the arithmetic with the voter shares and margin predictions cited above, you will find that my overall prediction is for a dead-even tie between Obama and Romney. Meaning: The 2012 winner is going to have to put together a generational scorecard that is, in some combination, better than the figures I have revealed.
How likely is it that Obama or Romney will put together that scorecard? I look at that in the next post.
This happens often. After I write about generational drivers or changes in the social mood, readers will contact me and ask: OK, so much for the drivers and the theory, Neil—what do you think will actually happen?
So let me try to pre-empt those readers. In my last post, I talked about how and why different generations lean toward or against the 2012 presidential candidates. In this post, I’ll talk about the connection between generations and some of the more conventional ways pundits currently handicap the election. I won’t exactly say who I think will win, but I will discuss some of the indicators I am following closely.
Futures Markets. Everyone knows that Republicans believe in futures markets (and in weird options and derivatives based thereon, like CDFs) more than anyone else. So here’s the bad news they have to swallow: Futures markets are now predicting Obama to beat Romney by roughly 16 percentage points. (This is not the predicted voter margin in the election; it is the probability margin by which of most investors think Obama will sneak by in at least a razor-thin victory.) That’s 57-40 percent on Intrade or 58-42 on Iowa Futures. Obama has been leading in these markets since last fall. Bless those markets. Because of the “law of one price” (look this one up under “arbitrage”), all of these futures market prices have to match, worldwide. Even brainy liberals (see Infotopia by Cass Sunstein, ) give very high praise to futures markets.
I agree that futures markets have a great track record and need to be taken seriously. Why do they lean more pro-Obama than the weekly polls? Maybe they sense that the sentiment for Romney is merely the way Americans vent their anger (always at the incumbent when talking to pollsters) before settling down and voting for the incumbent after all. Or maybe they sense that the strong preference of the rising generation for a cool and pragmatic Gen Xer as POTUS really does represent where the nation is heading—and that most voters will wake to that fact come November 6. Young Pompey once declared (to aging Sulla) that “more people worship the rising than the setting sun.” Maybe the markets agree.
Then again, markets no less than polls can be greatly mistaken this far away from the election. At the very least, I think that buying a Romney contract on Intrade at $4.00 and waiting to sell it once it hits $4.50 is an extremely safe trade—since sooner or later Romney is bound to have a surge carrying him at least this far. Even John McCain in 2008 surged in early September to 0.47 in the futures markets. It is also possible that the markets could gradually drift to a sizable Romney advantage between now and mid-October, and that after Romney wins everyone will congratulate the markets for being so prescient.
The Economy. According to the Pew Research Center, Romney leads Obama in his handling of one big issue, the economy, no matter how you phrase the question. And the economy—for example, the creation of jobs and the revival of wage growth—is now far more important to voters than any other issue (environment, gay marriage, immigration, foreign policy, what have you) by a very large margin. This is a big advantage for Romney. The unemployment rate is now 8.2 percent; looking at current indicators, it may not decline at all between now and November. No President since FDR has won an election with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. (That was the rate in November of 1984, when Reagan won re-election; and unlike Obama, Reagan brought the rate down from the date of his first election.) See The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight column for a detailed update on the link between the economy and election outcomes.
The economy is as good an argument for Romney as the futures markets are for Obama. Still, it has potential weaknesses. Voters have yet to buy into Romney’s economic program—or even to understand it—in any big way. Is Romney going to cut deficits faster than Obama? Who knows? However he runs deficits, Romney says he wants to do it more through tax cuts than spending increases. Is John Q. Public OK with this? Also, keep in mind the “no President since FDR” proviso. If the public comes to equate George W. Bush with Hoover—and Obama with FDR—well then all bets are off. FDR won as an incumbent in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.9% and in 1940 with a rate of 14.6%.
I agree that if the economy worsens in the next couple of months, or if we simply learn more about how bad the economy now is (at least one eminent forecasting group thinks we’re already in a recession, it just hasn’t been called yet), the news will certainly give a further boost to Romney. But the link between each generation’s pocketbook and vote is seldom simple or direct. The Silent Generation has done the best economically in recent years and will never bear much of the burden of large deficits, yet the Silent are the most anti-Obama. For the Millennials, it’s the other way around. Liberals often complain that red-zone Americans would switch parties if they only understood their own economic self-interest. Conservatives say the same today about Americans under age 30. The problem is, most people don’t respond to piecemeal economic incentives. They either do, or do not, buy into a whole vision.
Likeability. How much do you like the candidate? How much would you like to have a beer with him? These are the sorts of warm-and-fuzzy questions that many political analysts believe turn the tide in an election. In most of the critical elections I can remember, GOP candidates have had the likeability advantage: Reagan over Carter; Bush Sr. over Dukakis; Bush Jr. over Kerry. But this election, it’s tipping the other way: The Democratic candidate in 2012 is currently much more likeable than the GOP candidate. It hardly matters what you ask—which candidate is more “friendly,” “connecting,” “honest,” “good,” “trying,” or “engaged,”—Obama comes out ahead, typically by double digits. Likeability could be a huge plus in an era of great anxiety when many voters will want to go with their “gut. It certainly worked for FDR.
Speaking of whom, there actually was a time when the least likeable candidate was, routinely, the Republican. And that was the 1930s and 1940s. Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon were less likable than FDR, and Tom Dewey was less likeable than just about anyone, including FDR and Harry Truman. So Democrats, yes, can be likeable. Are we reverting to the last Fourth Turning in party likeability? Or is there a simpler explanation? Perhaps Mitt Romney, whom nearly everyone who knows him would call him very “likeable,” has simply not yet had the chance to get his charm on in prime time. We’ll see.
Intangibles & Wildcards. I give most of the intangibles at this point to Romney. He is the challenger, and it is an old maxim (though some disagree) that challengers do better late in the campaign. A much larger share of his supporters say they are “enthusiastic” about this election—no doubt reflecting the higher relative energy of older voters this time around. He also remains relatively unknown, which means that millions of Americans will be taking a close look at him for the first time in the ten weeks between the GOP convention and the election. Since much of what is known about Romney thus far is negative (thanks to the attacks from his primary opponents and to the Obama campaign’s efforts to “predefine” him), it is likely that his strengths—for example, his intelligence, wit, and dedication to his family and the community—will get plenty of play. Romney may surprise voters during the debates by coming across smarter and warmer than most voters are expecting.
Another possible plus for Romney is the “reverse coattails effect.” Since the GOP are odds-on favorites to retain a majority in the House and gain a majority in the Senate, Romney could be pulled along by state and local candidates. That assumes of course that most voters prefer to vote a straight ticket and have a single-party government. It’s often said that Americans are happy with divided government, but according to one recent study a large (and possibly rising) majority say no, they really do want one party in charge.
Any intangibles for Obama? Confidence, maybe. Though Obama supporters are less enthusiastic, they are more likely to say they want to cast a positive vote for their candidate (as opposed to voting against the other guy) and are a lot more confident than Romney supporters that their candidate will win. Obama must hope that confidence doesn’t morph into complacency and that his supporters are still ready to sprint. Many pundits also say that Obama has an advantage in the electoral college by leading in the bigger states. That could make a difference, but only if the popular vote is extremely close.
As for wildcards—meaning sudden big surprises—these usually break for the incumbent Commander in Chief, unless voters associate them with mistakes made by the incumbent. An attack on Iran (by Israel and/or the United States, though the most likely date now mentioned in the media is October, after the election), would likely break favorably for Obama. Seismic financial news (like a crash triggered by an impending breakup of the Euro) may not break as well, since it may persuade many voters that the world needs better global economic leadership.
Obama and Romney. Let me conclude with a few thoughts on the two candidates themselves—and how they are, or are not, representative of their generation.
As readers of our books and this blog know, I consider Obama (born, 1961) to be a first-cohort member of Generation X (born 1961-81). The Gen-X dates we’ve explained and defended at length elsewhere (too many books to hyperlink!). But what about Obama? Does he fit the basic Xer picture? I’ve always thought so: Son of a new-age mom; child of a broken family; growing up disoriented amid incessant travel, change, and social experimentation; coming of age agoraphobic, feeling (as he puts it) “like an outsider”; and ultimately constructing his own persona (like Gatsby), a quality I see in many successful Xers. What’s more, Obama knows he’s not a Boomer: In his books (Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope), he repeatedly mentions how he feels he came along “after” the Boomers and wants to put an end to much that Boomers have done wrong (culture wars, ideological polarization, and so on). Back in 2008, Obama often referred to this as a contrast between an earlier “Moses” generation and his own “Joshua” generation.
Obviously, opinions differ about who Obama “really” is. I think he is at heart a canny survivor, a masterful tactician, a pragmatist who doesn’t let emotions cloud his judgment. He knows when to play rope-a-dope (always let the GOP make the first budget move, then counter), or when to rouse his base by inveighing against Wall Street tycoons (even while hiring them to staff his Treasury), or when to ignore his own base and make a shrewd cost-benefit call (War on Terror by Predators, anyone?). On the Boomer cusp, Obama is certainly capable of crusading oratory—which adds to his versatility. Many of the most memorable crisis-era leaders in American history have been, like Obama, Nomad-Prophet hybrids: FDR, Abraham Lincoln, Sam Adams. Yet clearly Obama would need a very different and far more effective second term—and another opportunity handed to him by history—to enter these ranks.
As for Mitt Romney (born 1947), no one doubts he is a Boomer. He’s led a committed religious life; he’s always won accolades as a driven achiever; he’s made tons of money as a blue-chip yuppie; he believes in Values and Culture and Principles; and he tends to see America’s future in heavily moralistic terms (for example, in his recent book, No Apology: Believe in America, he juxtaposes his father’s “Greatest Generation” against his own “Worst Generation”—a dark figure of speech that Obama would never use). Will his religion be a problem? There is lots more talk about Mormonism as a Christian heresy among older than among younger Americans, that’s for certain. Many Millennials are impressed by the strong community ethic of Romney’s LDS Church.
One mystery about Romney, though, is the impression he gives to many of his fellow Boomers that he never shared their passionate coming-of-age experience, never broke from Mom and Dad, and never drank from the same deep well of authenticity and inner fire. We used to call this the “Dan Quayle problem.” Boomers have never been drawn to someone who seems to paint by the numbers. In the GOP primaries, when running against Gingrich and Santorum, Romney consistently did worse among Boomers than among other generations.
Yet in the general election, this weakness may rebound to his advantage. In the GOP primary, Mitt Romney consistently did better with young voters than any of the other candidates (with the occasional exception of Ron Paul). Millennials may actually like Romney’s cool and precise 7-point memo responses. (Romney, far more than McCain, will be able to debate Obama this fall on his own Ivy-League level.) Silent voters, similarly, may also prefer the buttoned-down Romney over the totally unplugged Boomer radical.
Yet at some point, for all of his advantages on paper, Romney will have to show some flame, some focus, and some real killer instinct. He will have to get ahead, stay ahead, and systematically thwart his opponent’s comebacks. In a national election, Romney has not yet demonstrated he has that endurance and resolve. Obama has.
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