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Today's Median Age Voters Grew Up in a Different America

By David Shribman

Memo to presidential candidates: Spare your allusions to the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II. Lose the references to the uprising in Hungary and to Sputnik. Drop those John F. Kennedy quotes -- and the ones from Bobby, too. While you're at it, you may as well can the comparisons to the Vietnam War. The median-age voter in 2008 wasn't even born when it started.

This election year brings a major adjustment in the vision of the electorate, from a group of voters who had vivid memories of the first landing on the moon to those whose horizon is far different.

The median age of voters in the 2008 presidential election will be about 44, according to figures derived from Census Bureau findings. That means the electoral sweet spot in the campaign is voters born in 1964, the year Nikita Khrushchev disappeared from sight in the Soviet Union, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, and Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "The Days of Wine and Roses" was the record of the year. (Soon, of course, the average voter won't know what a record was, besides the one established by Barry Bonds.)

These Goldwater babies -- born the year the Arizona conservative won the Republican presidential nomination -- are a breed apart from the voters who occupied center stage in elections past. Research suggests that young people become aware of political figures, principally the president, around age 9; that means these voters' earliest presidential memories are of Richard M. Nixon. They developed the beginnings of real political awareness around 13, which was the beginning of the Jimmy Carter years.

Consider the conventional cultural and political background that the median voter in this election does not have. No fluency in the forces that created, and emerged from, World War II, particularly the (often-abused) lessons of Munich appeasement. No familiarity with the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy. No recollection of the peril of the Cuban Missile Crisis. No experience with Jim Crow laws or legally segregated schools. No personal awareness of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle. No memories of the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." No familiarity with a television schedule entirely in black and white.

These are not simply cultural artifacts of another, quickly receding era. Nine of the 10 presidents who preceded Bill Clinton were involved in one way or another in World War II. (And the ninth, Jimmy Carter, was at the Naval Academy during the war and thus was steeped in its culture.) A generation of political leaders was marked by President Kennedy's brief but influential administration and the civil rights movement. DiMaggio, Williams and Mantle established America's expectations for sporting greatness, even as football began to eclipse baseball as the game that explained America. The median American voter today experienced all of this in history books, not in real life.

The same goes for what is probably the most important political scandal in American history. These voters were 8 when the Watergate burglary was committed; they were 9 when Fred Thompson, now a GOP presidential contender, asked the fateful question about whether Nixon had taped his conversations; 10 when the president resigned. They know the terms "cover-up," "modified limited hang-out" (John Ehrlichman's peculiar contribution) or "unindicted co-conspirator" (Nixon himself) only because they became part of the political argot. They do not remember where they were during the Saturday Night Massacre (Oct. 20, 1973), nor when the president gave his teary White House farewell (Aug. 9, 1974).

Now, consider the central experiences of the new bulge in the American voting public.

They were 12 when Mr. Carter was elected, 14 when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David agreement, 15 when the hostages were seized in Iran. They were 16 when Ronald Reagan was elected, 17 when Pope John Paul II was shot, 18 when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (the biggest-selling album ever) was released, 19 when Korean Air Lines 007 was shot down by the Soviets.

Mid-range baby boomers remember President Kennedy declaring "Ich bin ein Berliner" (1963), but today's median voters -- born in the last year of the baby boom -- remember President Reagan standing in Berlin and challenging the Soviet leadership by saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Older voters remember President Nixon's landmark handshake with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, but today's voters were moved by President Bill Clinton's presence at the poignant handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

With each election, the center of gravity in American politics shifts, inching away from the concerns and experiences of the middle of the last century. Indeed, now that the World War II generation's impact has diminished and the baby boomers are moving out of the center of the nation's politics, America's civic life is bound to change in profound ways. Some of the themes may be the same -- the role of a superpower in a dangerous world, for example, or the proper balance between creating economic growth and preserving the physical environment -- but the experience (and perspective) brought to these questions is changing.

Older voters remember the bitter "long twilight struggle, year in and year out" with Soviet communism (and will recognize the phrase as an extract from Kennedy's inaugural address). The younger voters now at the center of our politics remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet bloc.

Older voters remember the first Earth Day (1970) and the political concern about acid rain (the 1984 election). Younger voters were impressionable 15-year-olds during the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania -- a factor not to be underestimated as people once again speak of the possible virtues of nuclear power -- and are likely to be fearful of catastrophic climate change.

The country is changing. We no longer think terrorism happens someplace else, that China is a minor international player, that divorced candidates can't be elected president. As the country changes, so does its politics. Mostly its politics are refreshed, and that itself is refreshing.

Copyright 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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