By John Del Cecato - 11/19/09 10:13 PM EST
At the gym this week, my iPod shuffled to a heavy metal song from the 1980s, pushing me through my third mile with the reminder that “I never played by the rules/I never really cared.”
Turns out the young turks are taking politics by storm. The under-50 crowd seems to be outpacing its older opponents from coast to coast.
Earlier this month, 38-year-old African-American City Councilman Anthony Foxx scored an upset victory to become Charlotte, N.C.’s first Democratic mayor in 22 years. In Atlanta, state Sen. Kasim Reed, 40, came from behind to force a mayoral runoff election on Dec. 1. Seattle incumbent Greg Nickels was eliminated in the first round of voting, paving the way for 40-something Mayor-elect Mike McGinn. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, 61, was defeated by 47-year-old Chris Christie. Newly minted Westchester County (N.Y.) Executive Rob Astorino, 42, beat a Democratic incumbent who is 30 years his senior.
In New York City, 67-year-old Mayor Mike Bloomberg won reelection by defeating Democratic nominee Bill Thompson, 56. But Democratic also-ran Anthony Weiner, 45, thinks he could have been a real contender for the city’s top job, had he not bailed out unceremoniously last summer. Forty-eight-year-old Bill de Blasio, who stuck with his uphill campaign against perennial candidate Mark Green (who’s close to retirement age), overcame his rival’s massive early polling lead to become the city’s second-highest-ranked elected official.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who followed last year’s presidential election closely. Democrats nominated, and Americans elected, the only 40-something candidate in either party. In polling and focus groups, general-election voters frequently expressed their concerns about the age of Republican nominee — the only major candidate born in the 1930s. There was plenty written about whether a candidate in his 70s would suffer politically due to his advanced age. But little was said about how a candidate shy of his 50th birthday might benefit in our modern campaign environment.
It’s not merely a matter of appealing more directly to younger voters. True, President Barack Obama won by a lopsided margin among Americans who hadn’t reached the half-century mark. But he also eked out a win among those aged 50-64, according to national exit polls. And none of those who racked up wins in this year’s elections did so solely on the basis of the youth vote. What’s so special about candidates under 50?
Some suggest a deep-rooted desire on the part of many Americans to get past the “dormitory wars” of the 1960s — the old fights over Vietnam, social issues and other cultural cues that defined the baby-boomer generation. Or it may be that an electorate hungry for change sees younger candidates as more free to resist the allure of special interest influence.
It’s not that simple.
There are plenty of candidates in their 50s, 60s and 70s who show remarkable political strength. In Las Vegas, septuagenarian mayor Oscar Goodman — whose hometown approval rating has hovered in the unheard-of 80 percent range — may run for Nevada governor as an Independent. An October Mason-Dixon poll showed him beating both the likely Democratic nominee (40-something Rory Reid) and incumbent Republican Jim Gibbons by double digits if there were a three-way contest. And San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, 42, fared so poorly in Democratic primary polls that he recently suspended his campaign for California governor, paving the path to the nomination for 71-year-old Jerry Brown.
In most of these cases, the stronger candidate has demonstrated to voters a more unshakable aversion to politics-as-usual — challenging insiders, bucking conventional wisdom, sounding populist themes and tapping into voters’ discontent with the status quo.
That’s how Barack Obama became our 44th president. His promise to tackle the healthcare crisis played no small role in establishing his bona fides as the young turk of 2008 — refusing to play by the “old rules” that say Washington can’t get anything done.
Our national healthcare debate is far more than 50 years old. And if Congress fails to act, those who let the insurance companies win yet another round may quickly find themselves on political skid row.
Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.