While the gender gap in U.S. politics is narrowing, exit poll results in recent primary elections suggest that a generation gap, in which younger and older Americans vote against one another, seems to be emerging, especially among Democrats. Thanks to the strong social tolerance and lack of gender role differentiation of the Millennial Generation (young Americans born 1982-2003), pluralities of both Millennial males and females now identify themselves as both Democrats and liberals, while Baby Boomer males and females remain as divided as ever along partisan and ideological lines.
But even as the new generation's increasing presence in the electorate holds out the promise of the end of the gender gap in American politics, the strains of the Democratic primary contest threaten to pit this new "civic" generation's inclusive and optimistic attitudes and beliefs against the more divisive political behavior of older generations, especially Boomers.
In the March 4 Ohio primary, Hillary Clinton carried the votes of those 60 and over by an overwhelming 69% to 28% over Barack Obama. By contrast, Obama led among those 17-29 by a similarly wide margin (61% vs. 35%). That same day in Texas, Senator Clinton led 62% vs. 35% among those 60 and over, while Obama carried 17-29 year olds, 59% to 40%. Two weeks earlier, in a Wisconsin primary won solidly by Barack Obama, he led among those 18-29 by nearly a 3:1 margin (70%-26%), while Clinton received a majority of support from those 60+ (54% vs. 45%). In Maryland, on February 12, Obama carried 17-29 year olds, 64% to 33%, while Clinton won a narrow plurality of those 60 and over (48% vs. 47%). This pattern has been repeated in state after state throughout the entire presidential primary season.
Of course, generational conflict is nothing new in U.S. elections. In fact, in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, we point out that the rise of new, large and dynamic generations, which vote against the established patterns of older generations, is one of the primary causes of the political realignments that have transformed American politics every four decades throughout our country's history.
The impact of these realignments on the political system and the country depends on the kind of generation that produces the realignment. The last previous generation gap in 1968 featured the ideological, moralistic, and highly divided Baby Boomer generation vs. the gung ho, institution building beliefs of their parents -- members of the GI generation, the nation's previous "civic" generation. It split the Democratic Party apart in that year's presidential election and created the cultural wars that the country has endured for 40 years since. This year's generation gap (and resulting political realignment) is caused by the rise of a civic, unified Millennial Generation with its penchant for win-win, group-oriented solutions to the country's challenges.
All other things being equal, the coming Millennialist realignment should benefit the Democratic Party and make it America's majority governing party for at least four decades. Millennials identify as Democrats by a nearly 2:1 majority and are the first generation in the last three or four to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals than conservatives. They favor governmentally-based policies to deal with issues such as economic inequality, health care, and the environment. Millennials support a multilateral approach to U.S. foreign policy. And, they place little importance on divisive social issues and hold "liberal" positions on such matters as gay rights and abortion.
However, the close nominating contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton puts the prospects of a Democratic realignment based on the Millennial Generation in real jeopardy. A large majority of Millennials prefers Obama over Clinton. That difference in candidate preference by itself would not cost the Democrats the support of Millennials should Hillary Clinton ultimately become the Democratic presidential nominee. If anything, Millennials are more loyal to their political party than older, more independent thinking Boomers. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicated that the Boomer-based Clinton supporters would be more than twice as likely to leave the Democrats than the Millennial-based Obama supporters should their favorite candidate not win the Democratic presidential nomination.
But Millennials, raised on principles of fairness and consensus decision making, will be particularly influenced by how the end game that decides the Democratic nomination plays out. Unless the rest of this year's primaries produce a decisive outcome, the most important generational choice confronting the Democrats in the first half of this century will be made over the next several months by the party's superdelegates. If Hillary Clinton wins "fairly" after receiving the largest number of votes and having the most pledged delegates, a large majority of Millennials will likely remain Democrats and Senator Clinton will have a very good chance to lead a Democratic political realignment. If, on the other hand, Barack Obama, the Millennials' preferred candidate, is denied the nomination in a way that Millennials see as unfair, the Democrats will almost certainly lose an historic opportunity to win the loyalty of this generation and control of American national politics for the next four decades.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, published by Rutgers University Press.