January 20, 2004
The Future Belongs To Who? Bush Has Lead Among Young

By Mort Kondracke

Here's a harrowing pair of facts for Democrats: In 60 years, no Democrat has ever won the presidency without carrying the youth vote. And right now President Bush's approval rating among 18- to 29-year-olds is 62 percent, higher than his nationwide rating.

Top Republican strategists admit that the youth vote is fluid, but right now the trends are all in their direction, which they hope is a harbinger not only for 2004, but also a possible longer-term party realignment.

"It's called the theory of political socialization," one Bush campaign official told me. "Who are the most Democratic people in America? It's the over-65 age group. Why? Because the two presidents they knew best were Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.

"And who are the most Republican? People in their 40s, who came of age in the last two years of Jimmy Carter and the first two years of Ronald Reagan. "If your politics were being formed during the last two years of Bill Clinton and the first two years of George Bush, there's a fairly good chance that we'll have your support."

According to the Bush campaign's chief of strategy, Matthew Dowd, "In polls and focus groups, young people are attracted by Bush's qualities of leadership - his saying what he means - more than they are by Republican policy. But once that window is open, it's easier for us to speak to them."

It seems impossible that a generation reared on free-love television and rap music, a generation far more tolerant of ethnic diversity and homosexuality than its elders, could support the GOP, whose base in anchored in the religious right.

In fact, Democratic theorists such as Ruy Teixeira, John Judis and Stan Greenberg look upon the expanded role of minorities, cosmopolitan regions and diversity-minded young people to produce an "emerging Democratic majority" through the force of demography.

But, at the moment, the numbers support the view of GOP leaders that young people are trending Republican because they like Bush.

Last October, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government conducted a survey whose news release announced: "Defying conventional wisdom, a new poll of America's college students finds they are significantly more supportive of President Bush than the general public."

Former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), director of the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, said, "The conventional view that the majority of America's college students are Democratic ... is clearly disproved." But he added that their votes could not be taken for granted by either party.

The Harvard study found that a plurality of students, 38 percent, identified themselves as independent, but 31 percent said they were Republicans and only 27 percent Democrats.

In 1996, voters aged 18 to 29 supported incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton over GOP challenger Bob Dole by a whopping 19-point margin, 53 percent to 34 percent. Young people were Clinton's strongest age group.

In 2000, however, Al Gore outpolled Bush by just 2 points in the youngest age group. Young voters supported Democratic Congressional candidates by just 1 point in 2000 and, according to a perhaps-flawed reconstruction of exit polls, they voted about the same in 2002.

In November, a Gallup poll found that younger voters identify themselves as more "liberal" on social and economic issues than over-30 voters. And they were substantially more positive toward gay marriage than their elders, 52 percent versus 32 percent.

But in a generic matchup of Bush against an unnamed Democrat, under-30 voters went for Bush by a 49 percent to 39 percent margin, whereas over-30 voters supported him by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent. Bush's approval rating at that point was 62 percent among under-30 voters and 53 percent among those over 30.

Bush's scores remain high in a Gallup poll released last week. His approval is up to 59 percent for all voters and is still 62 percent among under-30s. Consistently, Bush's strongest showing is among voters aged 30 to 49 - 64 percent in the latest Gallup poll - and his weakest is among middle-aged voters, 50 to 64, where it's 51 percent. Seniors approve his performance by a 53 percent to 40 percent margin.

In head-to-head matchups with leading Democratic candidates, though, Bush did slightly less well among young voters than with the full national sample. Nationally, he led Howard Dean by 56 percent to 41 percent among all likely voters. Among under-30s, Bush's lead was 54 percent to 43 percent.

On specific issues, under-30s were slightly less inclined to support Republicans than the general electorate - except, amazingly, on gun policy. Overall, voters support the GOP over Democrats by a margin of 48 percent to 39 percent. Among young voters, 56 percent support the GOP position.

No candidate can win the presidency on the strength of young people alone, to be sure. They usually represent only 17 percent of the presidential electorate, about half the proportion of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Yet, they are the future. And, despite cultural influences you'd be sure would make them Democrats, Bush seems to be making it possible that the future will belong to the GOP.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.


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