While the eyes of the nation's political insiders were trained on Iowa and New Hampshire in an attempt to divine the future of American politics, the script for that drama was being written on New Year's Eve in Hollywood at the Party for the Presidency (P4P).
One hundred and fifty representative (demographically and attitudinally) leaders of the Millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2003, gathered here for a weekend of workshops and networking to finish writing their own declaration of political independence, called "Democracy 2.0." The conference was the culmination of three years of effort by mobilize.org, an organization of Millennials, established to implement their generation's desire to "upgrade democracy" for the 21st century and generate a series of action plans to involve youth in the 2008 campaign.
The Party for the Presidency gave these future leaders of America a chance to:
* Define the values they would use in working together to make their vision come true,
* Gain consensus on the defining characteristics of the Millennial Generation that will enable them to be successful in their quest, and
* Prioritize the issues they wanted to work on in order to make a difference.
Not only were the gender (51% female /49% male) and ethnicity (60% white, with the rest about equally divided among African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics) of the participants representative of this generation, but their preferences on what values they wanted to use in working together during the conference were also a mirror image of the values millennials will bring to America's civic debate.
Using the latest in technology, another key trait of the generation, they voted anonymously using wireless keypad devices to:
1. Work towards developing mutual trust and respect.
2. Be open-minded.
3. Take an active role and "speak your mind."
4. Keep focused on the big picture.
5. Listen and pay attention to each other.
6. Act with honesty and empathy.
Building from the results of smaller gatherings held during the last two years, the conference also sought to identify the unique traits of this generation that will enable it to attain its goals. The three traits garnering the most votes had to do with how adept the generation is in the use of communication technologies, especially social networks. Indeed, one participant after another talked about how they had cut their organizing teeth using MySpace and Facebook. In addition, the generation's tolerance on social issues and ethnic diversity were traits the group also recognized as being a major distinction between Millennials and the generations of Americans coming before them. . The participants also rated their generation's characteristics of innovation, interdependency, and global citizenship as key differentiators between them and older Americans.
These traits produce a different political mindset from what America experienced with either Baby Boomers or Generation X. When asked to place their own ideology on the political spectrum, two-thirds of the group put themselves somewhere on the left, with one-third, the mode or greatest number, at "Center-Left." But the results were even more dramatic when members of the group were asked to pick from various combinations of fiscal and social liberalism or conservatism to describe their political beliefs. Thirty-six percent, the mode on this survey question, chose socially liberal and fiscally moderate, with only four people, less than 3%, choosing any combination that included the notion of being "socially conservative." This suggests that Mike Huckabee's chances among Millennials are slim, in spite of his professed faith-based concern with the environment and poverty.
This set of ideological beliefs translated directly into overwhelming support for the Democratic Party. Fifty-five percent of those in attendance identified themselves as Democrats, 19% as Independents and 14% as Republicans. And, lest it be thought that those at the P4P were simply an unrepresentative, self-selected group of youthful left-wingers, these party identification numbers are very close to those obtained in larger, more "scientific" national surveys of the Millennial Generation conducted by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
Who was the overwhelming favorite among the Democratic candidates for President of those at the P4P? Senator Obama, or "Barack" as the head of his California field operations -- the only campaign prescient enough to send a representative -- called him. He not only had the support of 51% of the participants (compared to 22% for Hillary Clinton and 12% for John Edwards), but when the group was asked who was the most "youth friendly" candidate among the Democrats, Obama swept the voting with 73%. Most of the extra votes must have come from Clinton, who got only 4% from the group on this question, while Edwards climbed up to second place with 22%.
Everyone was allowed to vote on the Republican side as well, and the results suggest two of that party's candidates at least have the potential for attracting independent voters in New Hampshire. McCain finished first with 36%. Ron Paul came in second with 27%. Only 9% of Millennial leaders chose Mitt Romney, however, which does not bode well for his chances in early primary states with high numbers of independent voters, such as New Hampshire or Michigan . Not surprisingly, Ron Paul, with 42% was rated as the most "youth friendly" candidate in the Republican Party. Rudy Giuliani finished a surprising second at 19%, perhaps because of his identification with 9/11, an indelible event to most Millennials. Still, these numbers confirm that, if it can mobilize the votes of those under 25 in the 2008 election, the Democratic Party will add a powerful weapon to its campaign arsenal.
And based on the energy of the first night of this three-day conference, it won't be hard to get this generation engaged. After three hours of intense discussion and voting, the group was asked to come up with some ideas on what could be done to "help our society better involve citizens, specifically young people, to help address our most important problems." P4P participants were offered an initial set of eleven ideas from previous organizing conferences sponsored by mobilize.org. Even after limiting any new suggestions to those that won the consensus support of everyone else at their individual tables, participants thought of 47 more ideas for potential foundation funders to consider. Voting on which of these ideas to concentrate their energies, however, had to wait for another day. Having started with a spirited display of break dancing as energetic as any jitterbug contest that its generational counterpart, the GI Generation, would have staged , the group broke up for the night to party and watch an advance screening of, what else, a political movie.
By the time they are done, as the ball is dropping to signal the arrival of 2008 in Times Square, this group of Millennials have put the country on notice that its generation is "uniquely positioned to foster community engagement through social networks of all kinds," as its draft Democracy 2.0 declaration states, and assume "our responsibility to use information and technology to transform communication and advance political engagement and civic participation." As the draft declares in its conclusion, "It is our democracy. It is time to act."
Morley Winograd is co-author with Michael D. Hais, of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics, to be published in March by Rutgers University Press.
Follow Michael Hais and Morley Winograd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mikeandmorley