Dems search for fountain of youth

Democrats lean heavily on young voters to win elections, but their leading candidates for the White House are 68-year-old Hillary Clinton and 74-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The two other Democrats who were often implored to enter the race are Vice President Biden, 72, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 66.

{mosads}Democrats are led on Capitol Hill by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) — who are both 75.

Pelosi’s top two lieutenants are 76-year-old Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and 75-year-old Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.). In comparison, Reid’s expected successor as Democratic leader in the next Congress is a relative spring chicken: Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is 64.

The age of the Democratic Party’s lynchpins is a sensitive subject as the party prepares for life after 54-year-old President Obama.

Since Obama’s election in 2008, Democrats have wracked up net losses amounting to more than 900 seats in state legislatures, almost 70 House seats, 13 Senate seats and 12 governors’ mansions.

That has left Democrats with a seemingly thin bench as the party seeks to hold on to the Oval Office in part with appeals that it is the natural home for millennials.

It also stands in contrast with a Republican Party suddenly energized by an infusion of reliative youth. The GOP’s leaders now include 45-year-old Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), 44, is now a leading contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination, as is 44-year-old Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).

Discussions about younger Democrats who can perform in the glare of the national spotlight tend to begin and end with 48-year-old Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), 46-year-old Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and a pair of 41-year-old twins: Rep.Joaquín Castro (Texas) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. 

Julian Castro is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate on a Clinton-led ticket.

Other relatively youthful Democrats have their fans, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (44), Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (46) and California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris (51). But they are seen only as promising prospects at this point.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell insists that Democrats have “no bench.” He also asserted that the paucity of maturing talent was a consequence of the election losses Democrats have suffered since the 2008 high point of Obama’s election. 

Such losses “could hurt them for more than a decade,” according to O’Connell.

But outside experts who acknowledge the scale of Democratic losses don’t think the implications are so dire.

“Much of the Democratic bench in the states has been thinned by several punishing election cycles,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Nonetheless, young voters are attracted to the Democratic message of inclusion and willingness to spend on education and healthcare. Alternatively, the Republican message strikes many younger voters, especially single women, as harsh and stingy.”

That may be why Democrats seem relatively relaxed about the age question.

“One of the realities of the current situation is that Rubio is, let’s face it, a fresh face, young, handsome — and that is all a good thing. The closest thing we have in the presidential race, and he’s not playing very well, is [Martin] O’Malley,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, referring to the Democratic former governor of Maryland.

“But the problem for the Republicans is that young voters hate the Republican Party — I mean, they really do,” Bannon added. “They see the Republican Party as a party that wants to turn back the clock.”

While Bannon has a partisan interest in making that claim, there is data to back up his point, especially on social issues. Same-sex marriage — a concept vigorously opposed by most of the Republicans currently running for president — is backed by 70 percent of voters born in 1981 or later, according to a report earlier this year from the Pew Research Center. 

When Obama was reelected in 2012, exit polls showed him winning voters between the ages of 18 and 29 by 23 percentage points (60 percent-37 percent) and losing those over the age of 65 by 12 percentage points (44 percent-56 percent).

Other Democrats, as well as independent experts, note that the mere age of a candidate is a poor predictor of which age-bands he or she can draw support from.

“What demographic sector is most enchanted with Bernie Sanders, who is no spring chicken?” Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz asked wryly, alluding to the Vermont senator’s strong support among young liberals. 

“Sanders has racked up a disproportionate share of the youth vote,” a writer for The New Yorker mused back in August. “Why? Outwardly, he does not seem like a particularly hip or youthful guy. Sanders is nearly seventy-four, dresses like Willy Loman, and can name, from direct memory, the Dodgers’ lineup in the year 1951.” (Sanders turned 74 a few weeks later.)

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is also a columnist for The Hill, suggested that Sanders’s appeal to young voters was not all that anomalous.

“There is nothing to say an older candidate can’t attract younger supporters,” he noted.

Mellman also noted another fact, upon which many Democrats are relying: Concerns about a lack of depth on any party’s bench can be put to rest by the passage of time.

“Eight years ago, nobody was sitting here saying Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were going to be running for president,” he said. “These things change over time, sometimes quite dramatically.”

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Marco Rubio Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Steny Hoyer

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