Obama youth pitch misses its mark

Last week’s column argued that early conventional wisdom about elections — in particular, the bold prediction of significant departures from the status quo — often proves later to be wrong. We began our critique of current conventional wisdom by looking at the link between religious affiliations and voting, debunking prophecies that massive numbers of evangelical Christians will defect to Democratic candidates this November.

A second stream of conventional wisdom that merits challenge is the notion that age will be a key driver in this election, with the young voting for Barack Obama in overwhelming percentages and, presumably, senior citizens defaulting to their aged cohort, John McCain.

This assumed link between age and voting is, I believe, mostly an artifact of the Democratic primary process wherein Obama benefited heavily from the youth vote. But primaries only involve one party and even just one segment of that party — the most politically active — and may therefore not be indicative of what happens later in the general election.

Now, I am not going to deny that Obama will do better among the young, but what Democrat doesn’t? The new conventional wisdom, to be anything noteworthy, must be that Obama will do better among youth than have most Democrats. He must show that he is luring Republican and independent youth into his corner in unprecedented numbers. I doubt this will occur.

I have had quite a few January-October candidate pairings in my career, matching a younger challenger against a senior candidate. In every single instance of my own experience, young and old voters had the same takes on the candidacies. In in-depth interviews, younger voters consistently expressed a preference for the older candidate’s experience and wisdom while voicing skepticism that the young candidate would have sufficient experience to be an effective leader. In most interviews I have conducted, the youth seemed, more so than their senior peers, to express genuine respect for seniority and experience.

Meanwhile, the seniors whom I have interviewed in these races seemed to favor new blood while expressing doubt that someone their age should be elected to office. Their comments have always been a source of amusement to me.

“I don’t have the energy anymore to do something like that; I can’t imagine that he does either.”

“It’s time that we old farts get out of the way and let the new generation start handling things.”

I have never heard anything except these kinds of sentiments. So it’s hard for me to imagine that all of a sudden we’re going to see a perfectly linear relationship where Obama gets 70 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old vote, 55 percent of the 35-44-year-old vote, 45 percent of 46- to 64-year-olds, and 30 percent of the 65-plus ballots. But listen to some pundits and you’d expect that sort of thing.

I would expect that when the campaign reaches its end, we will find that age was much less determinative than many are anticipating. Partisanship and social class will still trump age as the principal causal factors in voter decisions.

Obama doesn’t seem to understand how all this works. He’s still stuck in the primary campaigning to liberal Democratic rockers. I recently heard him speak to a group of mostly young workers in New Mexico. During the course of his remarks he boasted of having been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, as if this validated his rock-star status and merited the assembled groupies’ votes and support.

If Obama keeps singing that rock anthem, he won’t succeed in converting a noteworthy percentage of GOP and independent youth. They realize that being the leader of the free world demands more in experience, judgment and wisdom than even Kanye West and Bono combined could muster.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.