The Democratic Party depends on lopsided support from younger voters, who have twice elected Barack Obama as president and twice neglected to vote in midterms that have been disastrous for the party. Democrats are trying to get over last week’s results by looking forward to 2016, when voters under 30 will be more likely to turn out, but they should pay attention to a possible weakness: compared with the Republicans, their leadership is old, old, old.
Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post, “As the post-Obama era nears, the Democrats’ best-known leaders in Washington are almost entirely from an older generation, from the vice presidency to most of the major leadership offices in the House and Senate. The generation-in-waiting will have to wait longer.”
Obama himself is a relatively youthful 53 years old, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is 74 (Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell is almost as old, at 72) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is also 74 (Speaker John Boehner is 10 years younger). Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the next Democratic presidential nomination, is 67. The only other possible candidates who regularly score above 5 percent in public opinion polls are Vice President Joe Biden (age 71) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (65).
If Warren doesn’t run, some in the left wing of the party are hoping for a challenge to Clinton from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (73) or Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (63). Those hoping for a more centrist alternative have been talking up former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (68). At 51, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the youngest Democrat making serious moves toward a presidential run, but in 2016 he’ll be almost a decade older than Obama was when he faced John McCain in 2008.
Possible Republican candidates include Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (51), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (43), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (43), Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (44), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (52), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (47), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (43). At 61, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the party’s old man candidate.
The ages of presidential candidates do not dictate whose votes they’ll get. Ron Paul (Rand’s father) did best among younger voters when he ran for the Republican nomination last time at the age of 76. But a spirited contest for the GOP nomination next time could engage first-time voters, especially if Clinton is essentially unopposed in Democratic primaries.
One reason for the lack of younger Democratic leaders is that so many possibilities have been wiped out in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. (Goodbye, at least for now, to Michelle Nunn, 47, and Anthony Brown, 52.) But another is that the Democrats are so unified on major issues, leaving little opening for younger insurgents to get attention. Democrats almost all agree on raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the wealthy as an alternative to cutting benefits in social welfare programs, legalizing same-sex marriage, and defending the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to gut it. Democrats agree that something should be done about climate change, but there’s no point in arguing about remedies when Republicans don’t even accept the premise that there’s a problem.
On the Republican side, serious divisions—libertarians vs. defenders of “family values,” isolationists vs. Middle Eastern interventionists, tea party obstructionists vs. those open to compromise with Democrats—are giving a dozen or more presidential candidates the opportunity to distinguish themselves. So far, there are few subjects for debate among Democrats. (That could change if the Supreme Court essentially kills the Affordable Care Act. The reaction among Democratic leaders would range from resignation to a renewed push for a single-payer insurance system, no matter how long it takes.) This bland unanimity, along with some very familiar faces at the top, will make it harder to build up enthusiasm among the party’s younger voter base.