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David Hill: President Obama’s lost generation

Greg Nash

As a pollster who is planning surveys for 2014 candidates, I am compelled to try and develop some sense of the likely electorate — a model of probable turnout.

Who will vote in the midterm elections? It’s tough to say these days.

Are Americans so angry that they will come to the polls in droves, like for a presidential election, or are they so bummed out by the failures of government that they’ll pass, concluding that voting couldn’t possibly make enough of a difference to make taking the time to vote worthwhile?

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The answers to our questions about turnout will vary by state — some states are not hopeless basket cases — and by demographics.

Seasoned citizens, our oldest voters, are in the habit of voting, and will turn out regardless of the dysfunction or opportunity that accompanies government and politics.

But at the other end of the age continuum, what about the “new electorate” — the cohort of younger voters that came into the electorate in 2008 and 2012 — how will they perform?

Are they likely to become President Obama’s lost generation of voters that loses interest, or will they stay in the game? 

There’s a strong probability it will be the former.

There is a branch of political science — labeled political socialization — that examines how people learn about politics. In general, this learning starts early in our lives.

I co-directed a large study of schoolchildren’s socialization to politics in the 1970s and discovered that even early-elementary school kids can develop detailed notions of politics. We had the intense event of Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation as a backdrop for our project, evidently informing attentive youngsters that even a president can get his “butt in a crack,” as one aspiring Bart Simpson observed in our study.

An underlying assumption of early pioneering studies of political socialization in the 1960s and 1970s is that attitudes, opinions and political values learned in childhood will influence the rest of one’s life.

Presidents are especially critical to political formation. Americans weaned on the benign politics of Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s will be forever shaped by traditional values of that era. The Camelot-infused Kennedy-era kids are different, as are the cynical children of Nixon. And so forth. Each presidential administration and political epoch provides unique experiences and teaches its youth a different set of lessons about politics and how it works and how one should participate in the political process.

Zoom to the present — what is the relevance of these traditional notions about political socialization for today’s youth?

For one thing, I’d guess that the learning process doesn’t stop in the 8th grade. With today’s widely recognized Peter Pan Syndrome, where kids are permitted to not grow up and become what we used to call adults, I’d guess that political socialization, as has been understood in the past, is occurring up to age 30 and beyond.

In the 1970s, political socialization researchers sometimes referred to youth as “pre-adults” in order to drive home the point that children are adults-in-the-making.

I am not saying that today’s 20-somethings are acting like children when it comes to politics, but they are still stuck in pre-adulthood when in comes to political formation, still exploring ideology, partisanship, participation, patriotism and related political orientations on the way to mature citizenship. If you struggle with this, think about religion as an analogy. Whereas children once simply adopted the faith of their fathers, they now explore alternate paths to God, sometimes to mid-life and beyond.

The Obama campaigns were the “big bang” event that brought a new generation of pre-adults to politics. Now it’s all breaking bad for them. They may be lost to politics. Next week’s column will discuss how economic issues and technological innovation could reinforce and forever complete the Obama generation’s political estrangement.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.