GOP needs younger candidates

Leading Republicans are casting about for a winning formula. It reminds me of the “brain trust” that annually tries to figure out how to (finally) get the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. What will we see this year? More pitching? More hitting? Free agents? Or push ahead with a “youth movement,” seen on display last season when the Cubs used a near-record 20 rookies? Ah, the youth movement. That’s something that Republicans could really use, starting with our representation in Congress.

This all came to me while I was watching the State of the Union message with the sound turned down (an ingrained political consultant habit that assigns precedence to the visual when it comes to watching speeches, debates, rallies, etc.). While there were many graphic images of that event that linger a week later, as I think back to it, but the most enduring is the antiquity of the Congress. They are really getting old, aren’t they? While Capitol Hill-types think of Congress as a whole, including all the perky young staffers, and therefore might not even think of their neighborhood as a “retirement village” (the mocking taunt that term-limit advocates used to hurl around), there was no denying the seniority of the joint session last Tuesday night.

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I had to go and check the record. Are they really that old? Not quite — at least in comparison to the recent past. As fact checkers have verified, the average age of members of Congress has hovered in a fairly small range for a while. The last Congress was actually older. But the long-term creeping trend that began in the 1980s is for an ever-older Congress. The average age of the first Congress of the 1980s was close to 50. Now it’s closer to 60, a decade older. Interestingly, across those years, Republicans have almost always been the younger party. Right now, we’re two years younger in the Senate and five years fresher in the House. That’s good.

My own polling in open-seat contests often asks about age as a component of candidate image. Looking at the confluence of those data, I am convinced that most people want their newly elected representatives to be in the prime of their lives, between 35 and 55, not in their sunset years. You only have to think back to the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, and the role that generational differences played there, to understand that age matters. Of course, this is not immutable. Occasionally an old-timer can dodge the ball, like Ronald Reagan did with, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” but that’s the exception.

Youth will become an increasingly important characteristic of candidates as the baby boomer legislators finally hit the exits with pensions firmly in hand. Not only do many voters want to vote for vigorous replacements, but they also want to vote for candidates that look more like them and therefore are thought to think like them. Younger candidates do, in fact, think younger. Their lives are different. Their culture is different. Their history is different. So a younger candidate is, in fact, more in touch with younger sensibilities. Sure, a few old-timers can get in touch with the next generation, but it’s harder and rare.

The generational gap matters generally, but I think it will matter more because of changing racial and ethnic demographics. Minority populations, like Hispanics and African-Americans, are significantly younger than Anglos. To wit, I think one of the reasons that younger Cubans moved to Obama’s candidacy is a generational reaction. They wanted a leader of their own age cohort.

When open seats come up this year and next, the GOP powers that be should push hard for a youth movement.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.