Monday, June 8, 2009

The Formative Years

Nate Silver has an insightful political analysis at the FiveThirtyEight.com blog.

He asserts, based on some findings by Gallup, that people gravitate to political parties based on (a) who was president when they "came of age" — i.e., when they turned 18 — and (b) how popular that president was.

Not surprisingly, popular and/or successful presidents boosted their party's partisan identification; unpopular and/or unsuccessful presidents had the opposite effect.

His conclusion — based on data showing that people in the 18–25 age group are really Democratic while people in the 26–34 age group are pretty Democratic — is that the experience of the George W. Bush presidency will haunt the Republicans for a long time to come.

"Voters who came of age during the eight years of the Bush presidency are roughly eight points more Democratic than the rest of the country," Silver writes, and "that advantage could be worth an extra point or two to Democrats throughout the next half–century."

I can't dispute the conclusion. In fact, it seems natural to me. If a president is successful, he has an influence on voting behavior that outlives his presidency — particularly with people who became politically conscious when that president was in office. In fact, it can override the experiences one has at home.

My brother and I were raised by Democratic parents. They "came of age" during the Truman years — although it is questionable, in my mind, whether coming of age, for my parents, can be determined as when they reached the age of 18, since the law that existed at that time did not give anyone the right to vote until they were 21.

But, even when that variation is taken into account, they both became old enough to vote ("came of age") while Truman was still in the White House — but just barely.

Still, Truman wasn't very popular at the end of his presidency. His standing with the public improved considerably over the next couple of decades, but my parents had been voting for a long time by the time his public rehabilitation was complete.

Even so, my parents were Democrats. And, when I turned 18, the president was a Democrat — Jimmy Carter. Silver observes that Carter is "associated with slightly below–average levels of Democratic support," which, in hindsight, may be true. But, in my mind, comparing the Carter years with the deceit of the Nixon years and the perceived betrayal of his successor, Gerald Ford, who pardoned Nixon one month after his resignation, was no contest. I saw Carter as being honest; I did not feel that way about Nixon or Ford. And I have voted for Democrats (with almost no exceptions) ever since I turned 18.

My brother is three years younger than I am. He celebrated his 18th birthday a few weeks before Ronald Reagan took office. At the time, Carter's approval ratings had been languishing in the 30s, and I've always felt that my brother was a product of the Reagan years, even though they had not begun (technically) when he came of age.

In my mind, he has tended to live up to that assessment. I don't know exactly how he has voted over the years, but, as an adult, he has shown a preference for Republican candidates in our conversations.

Will the preference for Democrats be lifelong for today's young people? That remains to be seen. Much will depend on how the Obama presidency is perceived in the years to come. Today, it is hard to imagine him falling out of favor with a public that has been largely supportive of him.

But it's worth remembering that George W. Bush's high water mark in approval ratings exceeded 90%. At that time, it was hard to imagine a time when the Bush presidency would be seen as a drag on Republican fortunes. Yet, less than 10 years later, that is precisely how it is perceived.

What Obama does during the course of his presidency, whether his actions are regarded as successful and what Republicans do in response will determine how permanent the preference for Democrats is among today's young people.

2 comments:

del patterson said...

As a government teacher for many years I can tell you that fact follows fictions in regards to what a prez says. It's only a matter of days, weeks, or months until the truth spills.

Dubya lied like a gas meter, the supposed "great communicator lied like hell when the blood of 245 of my fellow marines were killed while he and Ollie North worked their magic with the public about selling arms to the Contras.

As a journalist, surely you see the implications of a media that has completely abandoned the idea of a on-site-reporter; hell, now we won't know who is lying.

David said...

Gosh, is that what I was writing about? I thought I was writing about how young people's political preferences are influenced by perceptions of presidents who are in office when those young people reach the age when they can vote.

At least, that's what I meant to write about.

Anyway, in answer to your question, yes, I see the implications. But with newspapers on life support, I see no alternative. Do you?