THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign trail is often an early barometer of emerging trends and coalescing constituencies in American politics.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign presaged conservatism’s attraction to a wave of younger voters, as well as the willingness of Northern blue-collar voters to abandon the party of their traditional economic champions in favor of one whose candidate expressed their cultural concerns. Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign marked the emergence of socially liberal, fiscally moderate, reform-minded voters as a potent force in Democratic politics.
Trends aren’t yet as pronounced in Campaign 2012, but a few weeks on the trail have highlighted some interested things.
One is the importance that coming-of-age voters attach to gay equality. You could see that in the repeated and persistent questions conservative cultural warrior Rick Santorum faced from younger voters in New Hampshire about his hard-line anti-gay-marriage stance.
Gay marriage was the first question out of the box after Santorum spoke at the Dublin School, a prep school in western New Hampshire. Nor were the students satisfied with his argument that marriage was not a right, but rather a privilege bestowed to encourage child-rearing. Or that allowing same-sex matrimony would mean depriving children of their right to have both a mother and a father. Or that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead ineluctably to polygamy. They returned to the issue repeatedly, using Santorum’s answers as a jumping-off point for further challenges.
That was hardly Santorum’s only youthful grilling on the subject. Indeed, the hostile reception he got from students at a college convention in Concord, where the former senator treated his sophistic slippery-slope-to-polygamy argument as though it were trump, made headlines.
Overall, 51 percent of adults favor gay marriage, with 45 opposed, but among adults under 30, 65 percent back same-sex unions, with only 32 percent opposed, says Gary Langer, president of Langer Research Associates and the pollster for ABC News. Santorum’s experience in New Hampshire suggests that for Gen Yers, gay equality is not just one of many issues, but rather a primary concern in evaluating a politician.
“The notion of full equality for people regardless of sexual orientation is a core conviction of their generation,’’ notes Ralph Whitehead, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
There are several reasons younger voters are attracted to Ron Paul. The libertarian Republican appears authentic; he’s generally consistent; he’s been the only real anti-war candidate in the Republican field.
But I was also struck by one I hadn’t heard before. Paul seems like the candidate who speaks most to their perceived fiscal plight. The nation’s long-term deficits have convinced some young voters that Social Security and Medicare won’t be there decades hence, when they need it - and that they’ll be left holding the bag full of the bills for expenses the nation is currently racking up.
Actually, though the entitlement programs will inevitably see changes, deficit reduction won’t mean the end of them. Not, that is, if Washington eventually decides to deal with the structural budget imbalance in a responsible way.
Still, you can hardly blame those voters for their skepticism. So far, political gridlock has prevented meaningful or responsible deficit reduction. The headlines, meanwhile, are full of news about our huge deficit. Our current spending policies are sending the bills to the future, which will increase fiscal pressures in the decades to come.
And for all his avuncular eccentricities, Paul is certainly the Republican who seems most concerned with the impact the debt could have on their generation. His solution - cut $1 trillion in spending in year one and balance the budget in three years - isn’t politically realistic. That said, it represents the most determined verbal assault on the debt-accumulating status quo, so there is a certain logic to his becoming a political pied piper for the youth vote.
In a larger sense, it’s great to see young voters making their political priorities known. Who knows, if assertive enough, they might even promote two healthy trends in this country: Expanding equality and a sense of intergenerational responsibility.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.