A new generation transforms US politics
By James Carville
Published: November 5 2008 19:39
American voters have emphatically slammed the door on eight long years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s divisive politics and disastrous policies. Following a predictable and ho-hum closing stretch of the campaign, Barack Obama was overwhelmingly elected president. The most important and most textured race for the presidency in my lifetime, in most Americans’ lifetimes, deserved a more dramatic finish.
The historical significance of electing our first African-American president cannot be lost on me, as I remember what it was like growing up in the segregated South. To say that I never thought I would see an African-American president in my lifetime is to understate what Mr Obama’s achievement says about America.
Additionally, although there seem to have been no fireworks or fuss marking its demise, with this election the Republican party has lost not only the White House and more than a few seats in Congress but an entire generation of voters. I have written in these pages, as early as August 2007 (see: “How Karl Rove lost a generation of Republicans”), that the Bush-Cheney-Rove triumvirate alienated a vast majority of young voters with its culture wars, ill-planned Iraq war and thorough, relentless bungling of domestic and foreign affairs. What was once a split demographic has become a solid voting bloc for the Democratic party for many years to come. Mr Obama and congressional Democrats made history on Tuesday night in no small measure due to the unprecedented enthusiasm of America’s youth. Mr Obama addressed them in his victory speech: “It [our campaign] drew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep.” Quite simply, young voters (18-29 years old) delivered and delivered big.
Exit polling indicates that Mr Obama won two-thirds of those voting under 30 years old against 32 per cent for John McCain. Compare that with a 54-45 margin for John Kerry in 2004 and a 48-46 margin for Al Gore in 2000. Consider this: if young people had voted for Democrats at about the same proportion of the overall electorate (52-46) as they had voted as recently as 2000 for Mr Gore and for many cycles prior, Mr Obama would not have won North Carolina or Indiana. Young voters also provided the margin of victory in key battleground states such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio. The youth vote expanded the map for Mr Obama; it put him over the top in states not won by Democrats in decades.
Additionally, exit polling indicates young voters increased their share of the electorate to 18 per cent, which is no small feat. These numbers will be studied for years to come. But already it is clear that the importance of the margin by which Mr Obama and Democrats up and down the ballot won 18-29 year olds must not be understated.
By large margins, young people believe that Mr Obama can and will change the direction of the country. Their view that government should take an active role in society separates them from older voters. Young people want to see government try to solve problems, like environment and healthcare, and are willing to pay a little more in taxes to make it happen. Their view is indicative of a larger problem for the Republican party.
In presidential politics, party dominance is cyclical. Look at 1896-1932, then 1932-1968, then 1968-2008. Republican dominance over the past 40 years (the exceptions being one term for Jimmy Carter and two for Bill Clinton) grew out of a reaction to the 1960s. It was rooted in the power of the white male vote. But that voting bloc is shrinking while emerging Democratic constituencies are projected to grow in size and voting strength. To put it simply, every shrinking demographic is Republican and every growing one is Democratic.
One party has to lose a presidential election every four years. Congressional seats change hands every election cycle. Elections come and go and usually they are without deep or abiding consequence for either party. That is politics. But occasionally there is the election, like this one, that makes a resounding, lasting impact on the US political landscape. The Republican party, now an at all-time low in popularity, has lost a generation of voters. In 2008, a new Democratic majority has emerged with young voters at the helm. It is a majority that will continue for 40 more years.
The author is an international political consultant and CNN political contributor. He was chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and is working on a book, ‘40 More Years: Electing a Democratic Majority for the Next Generation’
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