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For 2016, generational tables are turned

In the race for the White House, there seems to have been a demographic flip in the two major parties’ candidates.
In the race for the White House, there seems to have been a demographic flip in the two major parties’ candidates.(AFP/Getty Images)

IN THE early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, it looks as if the two major parties have switched generational identities.

Contemplate their nominees from 1960 forward, and some pronounced propensities emerge. Democrats have had a proclivity for relatively youthful candidates who aspire to embody the sensibilities of an emerging generation. Think John Kennedy (the nominee at age 43), George McGovern (49), Jimmy Carter (51), Bill Clinton (45), and Barack Obama (47).

The Grand Old Party, meanwhile, has put a premium on grandfatherly figures whose candidacies harken back to traditional values. Think Ronald Reagan (69), Bob Dole (73), John McCain (72), and perhaps even Mitt Romney (65).

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Here's an instructive encapsulation: Elected in 2000, George W. Bush, 54, was the GOP's youngest president since Calvin Coolidge, an accidental chief executive who won a term in his own right back in 1924, at age 52. Yet when Bush entered the White House in 2001, the 54-year-old Republican was the same age as Bill Clinton, the Democrat who was departing after eight years in the Oval Office.

On the Democratic side, primary voters have shown openness to longer shots and lesser-knowns, and a clear attraction to newness, freshness, and novelty. JFK, McGovern, Carter, Clinton, and Obama all benefited from that inclination.

The Republicans have had a preference for — or deference to — well-established repeat candidates whose turn it is judged to be. Despite a 1960 presidential defeat and a 1962 California gubernatorial loss, Richard Nixon rebounded to win the GOP nomination again, and the presidency, in 1968. Notwithstanding their previous primary-campaign failures, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney all bounced back in subsequent cycles to claim the GOP nomination — and, in the case of Reagan and Bush, the presidency as well.

But this time around, it's as though the two parties have swapped their standard political operating procedures.

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The younger, fresher faces are on the GOP side: figures like Florida's Marco Rubio and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, both 43; Texas's Ted Cruz, 44; Wisconsin's Scott Walker, 47; and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Chris Christie of New Jersey, both 52. It's not all youth, of course. Anchoring the GOP's longer-toothed tier of credible likely or possible candidates: Florida's Jeb Bush and Ohio's John Kasich, both 62.

But there is no underlying assumption that it is anyone's turn this time around.

Now for the Democrats.

The early front-runner is Hillary Clinton, 67, a defender of Bill Clinton-era Democratic verities, who failed in her first presidential run in 2008. Should she falter, Vice President Joe Biden, 72, who has sought the presidency twice before, might try again. One candidate likely to take Clinton on is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, 69. A surprise possible entry, Republican-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, is 62.

The only potential Democratic candidate who could, in political terms, be called youthful is 52-year-old Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland.

So what explains Clinton's strong early standing? Well, in part, it's a feeling among some Democrats that . . . it's her turn.

Now, if the GOP becomes the party of younger voters, it would obviously garner some real momentum.

Yet it's hard to be a young party with old ideas. Take, for example, gay marriage. Poll after poll shows that equality for gays and lesbians is a strong social value for younger voters.

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And yet, out of fear of alienating social conservatives in the GOP base, even libertarian-leaning Rand Paul is trying to finesse the issue. He opposes the term "gay marriage" while calling for equal marital rights through contracts.

Christie has a somewhat similar stand. Walker simply ducks. Cruz and Rubio, who are both opposed to gay marriage, at least rhetorically, sidestep by saying the issue should be left to the states.

On Cuba: Cruz, Rubio, Christie, and Walker have taken positions that seem stuck in the past, denouncing President Obama's decision to end the embargo and reestablish diplomatic relations. Among the major GOP candidates, only Paul supports the new path on Cuba.

Could the Democrats remain the favorite of younger voters, even if the party's nominee is someone old enough to be collecting Social Security?

There, modern history holds an interesting example, a figure who rode to two landslides with the strong support of voters young enough to be his grandchildren.

Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.

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