The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 222012

I know some young adults in NYC who are crazy about “tough mudding.”  So when I got this email I really wanted to pass it along. It definitely has the Millennial thematic going for it—raising money for wounded veterans and showcasing teamwork and party-style challenge rather than finishing first and doing whatever it takes to win. Yet it also shows plenty of Xer overtones, including the whole super-tough, warriors-never-show-fear line. (Note: I did see one mudder in one video below holding a sign, “It’s OK to Cry.”) I think the video, below, nicely balances these Millennial and Xer notes.

He’s certainly correct that you won’t meet here any Boomer-like young people trying to teach the world to sing.

Anyway, here is Andrew’s brief testimonial:

Hi Neil,

I’m a 27 year old first wave Millennial (1984) and a recent fan of yours.

I discovered Generations last year, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the generational history, trying to apply it to my experiences. I was having mixed feelings about the theory’s validity for my generation, particularly the questions of what it means for my generation if the latest crisis has already arrived (early) and whether my generation really values team work as you and William predicted.

Those doubts were lifted this past weekend, when I attended the latest Tough Mudder challenge in New Jersey.

If you are unfamiliar with Tough Mudder, take a look at their website. This year, 500,000 people (mostly Millenials) gathered to partake in physical challenges all based around the theme of teamwork. Here is their pledge, which they repeat in unison, military style before the challenge begins:

I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
I do not whine – kids whine.
I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
I overcome all fears.
            —Tough Mudder Pledge



It got me thinking: Half a million (mostly) young people, from a single generation gathered in a field, covered in mud. Woodstock? The parallels are amazing. Except instead of self-expression and spiritualism, my generation values teamwork and physical prowess.

Just thought I would share my experience with you.


Andrew Atkins

Nov 222012

BBC news home editor Mark Easton writes: “Adolescents are increasingly turning their noses up at drugs, booze and fags, with consumption by young people the lowest at almost any time since we started measuring these things.” He cites data from the Home Office and the National Health Service showing large declines over the last fifteen or twenty years in the share of young British teens who use illicit drugs, smoke cigarettes, or regularly drink alcohol. Easton also notes that the number of “juvenile delinquents” (youths with a criminal record) has fallen by half in England and Wales since 2001.

Boomer and Xer parents, who now do most of the drinking and misbehaving, wonder why “teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience.”  Maybe, he suggests, today’s teens think it’s just so stupid to do what their parents did. Here’s a nice line by Easton: “Could it be that teenage rebellion needs to look different to what your mum and dad did? Smoking, boozing, dropping pills and hooliganism – that’s so Generation X.” Note also his surprise that so many kids showed up with parents to watch a Beach Boys concert

Yes, there is a European Millennial Generation.  Teens in the UK and throughout much of Europe are today showing many of the same behavioral and attitudinal trends—a strong movement away from personal risk taking and toward family—that teens in America showed a decade ago. So why is it happening a decade later in Europe? We actually addressed that question at some length way back in 2000 in our book Millennials Rising (see pp. 291-293). In surveying teens abroad back then, we pointed out that many feature stories on European youth were not showing any of the same trends that we noticed here at home. We actually quoted a 1998 British study of a so-called English “Millennial Generation,” which found youths between the ages of 16 and 21 to be cynical and risk taking, much more interested in leaving home and starting their own businesses than in being with their family or helping their community.

The explanation, we posited, was that most European recent generations are dated 5 to 10 years later than their American counterparts due to the later end of the World War II crisis in Europe. That’s why their baby boom came later; their “sixties” sex-drugs-divorce-crime waves came later; their deregulatory and tax-cut wave came later (more around the fall of the USSR than back in the early ‘80s with Reagan); and—what’s most relevant here–why their rediscovery of family and moral panic over children came later. As we wrote in 2000 (italics in the original): “Abroad, the leading edge of a new Millennial generation, in most countries, probably has not yet reached its teens.” Today, perhaps, they are just reaching their early 20s.

Anyway, here is the story (BBC News Magazine; Oct 2, 2012):

Is the Teen Rebel a Dying Breed

by Mark Easton

My son has just turned 13 and I made him a card to mark the moment he became a teenager. I put a picture of him as a choir-boy next to a Photoshopped shot of him as a saggy-trousered gangsta rapper – the innocent child mutating into a growling ball of rebellious fury. But a series of recent official statistics are making me question whether the old joke is true any more.

Teenage rebels are not what they were.

Adolescents are increasingly turning their noses up at drugs, booze and fags, with consumption by young people the lowest at almost any time since we started measuring these things.

Drugs: Last week, the Home Office published analysis which suggests the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds that have ever taken illicit drugs has fallen from 54% in 1998 to 38% now. Among 11- to 15-year-olds the figure has fallen from 29% to 17% in a decade.

Tobacco: Last month, NHS analysis suggested the proportion of English 16- to 19-year-olds who have never smoked has risen from about two-thirds in 1998 to three-quarters now. And the data is just as striking among their younger brothers and sisters. In 1982 most 11- to 15-year-olds (53%) had had a sneaky cigarette at one time or another. Today, just a quarter has ever spluttered over a fag behind the bike sheds.

Alcohol: It is a similar story with booze. In 1998, 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds questioned said they’d had a drink that week. Today it is 48% – far lower than their parents (about 70%). Among 11- to 15-year-olds there are similar big falls. A decade ago, 26% reported they’d had alcohol in the previous week. Now the data suggests the figure is 13%.

So what is going on? When it comes to smoking and drinking and taking drugs, British teenagers are behaving better than their parents.

That’s not to say there are not still real challenges, of course. But the trends are encouraging enough to question whether the archetypal teen is evolving.

The concept of adolescence goes back to the 1900s and the American psychologist G Stanley Hall, who argued that the biological changes associated with puberty drove problematic behaviour. He described it as a period of “storm and stress” when young people demanded freedom but needed discipline.

The theory was embraced in 1950s Britain, where the establishment had become seriously concerned about the threat from rebellious youth. Along with exotic clothes and loud music, a new word had crossed the Atlantic – teenager. It was a term that inspired the development of a new economically independent sub-culture, simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Over the next four decades, teddy boys, bikers, mods, rockers, hippies, punks, ravers and grungers put two pubescent fingers up at authority in their own fashion and took delight in watching the staid grown-ups flinch and frown.

Today, though, where are the rebellious sub-cultures?

No-one is suggesting that young people don’t misbehave, but teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience. If anything, we are in the middle of a period of increasingly good behaviour.

A simple measure of “juvenile delinquency” is the number of youngsters who enter the criminal justice system as a result of a police reprimand or conviction. The figure for England and Wales has halved in 10 years – from about 90,000 in 2001 to 45,000 young people in 2011.

There are going to do be many factors that contribute to this trend. Those people working in schools and youth services will argue that their work on smoking, alcohol and drugs is the reason all the arrows are pointing the right way.

The police, probation and social services may claim that they have been responsible for improvements in behaviour.

But I wonder if there is something else going on here. Could it be that teenage rebellion needs to look different to what your mum and dad did? Smoking, boozing, dropping pills and hooliganism – that’s so Generation X.

These days, perhaps, adolescent identity is defined more by the use of social media rather than the use of illicit drugs. It might be that texting and messaging, Facebook and Bebo provide the exclusive amity once provided by gangs and musical sub-cultures.

In my day, the classic bored teenager hung around the bus-stop with a few mates and someone produced a packet of 10 and a bottle of cider. Nowadays they are upstairs on the laptop, PS3 or mobile, gossiping and playing and flirting. It is a digital world where grown-ups are not allowed, a playground for the virtual teen rebel.

Over the weekend I went to see the Beach Boys perform at Wembley Arena. I don’t know whether it made me feel very old or very young. The original teenage boy band put on a good show, but there was something disconcerting about the line-up of pensioners, some of whom bore witness to a misspent youth.

The age profile of the audience was far more mixed than I had expected. There were thousands of teenagers among the baby-boomers. What was going through their minds as they looked at Brian Wilson trying to focus and Mike Love dad-dancing?

I wonder whether the word “teenager” is being redefined and the card I sent my son for his 13th birthday is an example of a prejudice that has had its day.

Nov 152012

James Vaughn is a Washington, DC, consultant who specializes in using social media metrics, quantitative tools, and political theory to help clients (good guys only!) assess and improve their reach and influence. He’s a Kennedy School grad and has served with lots of good-government initiatives. I know him through our common affiliation with CSIS.

A couple of days after the election, James sent me the following text and chart, which I am reproducing here as is. Beyond that, I will let him speak for himself. Otherwise, I can only say, I am Neil Howe and I approve of this message…

As someone who incorporates generations theory into my work, I was curious to see how it would predict the actual results of the presidential election. As far back as July 31 of this year, Neil Howe was predicting likely voter preferences by generational cohort. After the election, I compared the results of the exit polls by CNN with Howe’s predictions.

The chart below breaks down the exit polls by age. The first column shows the CNN age group, the percentage of the electorate they comprised, the birth years for this age group, and the generational tag associated with those birth years. The match wasn’t always perfect, but it is close enough for our purposes. CNN had two age charts and I have used a hybrid between the two to make it easier to compare Howe’s predictions with the exit polling.

In the second column, I list Howe’s prediction for how that generation would likely vote. This is taken from his July 31st blog post. The third column is the actual margin of the vote based on the preference expressed in the exit polls. (Columns 4 and 5)

In every case Howe’s predictions closely tracked the exit polling results. The biggest discrepancy was in the Generation X category. Howe predicted First Wave Xers would vote more heavily for Romney than they did. As a first wave Generation Xer, I voted for Obama as did many of my normally more GOP-leaning peers. Our views are more pragmatic about how the fiscal crisis needs to be addressed and put us in Obama’s corner. Howe was spot on with his predictions for Boom and Silent Generations. The outcome for the 65+ category possibly reflects the difference between the 15% preference for Romney being weighed down by the predicted 3% lean for Obama by the G.I. Generation.

The post-election analysis has focused on demographics as destiny with most of the emphasis on the growth in minority populations, but perhaps the greater predictor will be the generational model with the first wave of Generation X serving as the swing demographic in the next presidential election. Political strategists in both parties should add the works of Neil Howe to their reading list as they plan for the next election cycle.

Nov 102012

Three further thoughts about ’12, in no particular order.

First, I mentioned that the positive correlation between voter age and Romney share definitely showed up, as predicted. Without exception, every age bracket identified by the exit polls had a higher Romney share than the age bracket beneath it and a lower Romney share than the age bracket above it.

Yet there is one particular age-cleft that I have often discussed in past posts and that I would like to highlight here: the stark contrast between first-wave Xers in their 40s (more conservative, came age with Reagan) and last-wave Xers in their 30s (more progressive, came of age with Clinton).  In the following table, I list the additional share of each age group that went to Romney as you move to each older age group:

Note that the jump in the preference for the GOP from last- to first-wave Gen Xers is larger by far than between any other two adjacent age brackets.  Last-wave Xers voted for Obama by 55 to 42 percent.  First-wave Xers voted for Romney by 50 to 48 percent. That’s an 8-point swing.

If the exit poll had a finer-grained measure of the Boomer age brackets, we might even be able to detect a backward bend toward Obama as you move from first-wave Xers in their late 40s to first-wave Boomers in their late 60s.  We’ve often seen that in prior elections and party ID surveys.

Second, I’ve read some excellent reader answers (both in comments and by emails) to the questions I raised about the stunning swing of Asians to Obama. More than one reader pointed out that it may be less due to any special Asian animus against Romney and more with their special attraction to Obama. If so, this may pose special problems for the Democrats in 2016, especially if they go with someone older and whiter. Morley Winograd told me that the Asian swing took him by surprise as well. He thinks part it was partly due to very well organized get-out-the-vote campaigns among young minorities, Asians especially, and the effective use of social media. Many Gangnam-style vote videos went viral, and several have been posted on youtube.  Let me show one of them here (from Atlanta’s Asian-American Legal Advocacy Center):

Third, one reader made the interesting observation that however well Romney did among whites overall, Obama still managed to take a number of white-dominated New England states like New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. A great point, because the flip side is that outside New England and the blue-zone coasts, and especially in the red-zone south, the state-wide white shares for the GOP are even more lopsided, in the 65 to 75 percent range.  It’s hard to say exactly, because the exit-poll media consortium chose not to include any deep-south states.  But if you look at many of the more rural counties in Texas, for example, you find most of them are 80+ percent for Romney, which may translate into close to 90 percent whites for Romney.

When I occasionally talked to friends in Texas earlier this year, some were amazed that Obama might be re-elected since they literally did not know anyone who intended to vote for him. I know others in blue-zone enclaves who have felt the same amazement, in reverse.

I find this growing alignment of geography and ideology to be a very disturbing trend as America moves further into a 4T. There was much talk in ’08 about the emergence of a “purple” America.  What I see, in ’12, is redder reds is some parts and bluer blues in others.  Could political regionalism or outright separatism be looming in our not-too-distant future?  While many of us may think we already resolved that issue in the 1860s, my late co-author Bill Strauss had his doubts and once even wrote a futuristic novel about a dis-integrated America. Let us hope we never go there.

Nov 082012

On November 7, Americans were just beginning to assess the magnitude and meaning of President Obama’s ’12 victory when the Dow dropped over 300 points, its largest daily plunge of the year. The next day, November 8, it plunged again. It’s almost as if history doesn’t want to give us time to contemplate what happened. But now, at the risk ignoring the rush of events, let’s take a moment to put some closure on the election season.

Overall, as my readers know, the ‘12 results were pretty much what I anticipated.

I said the election would be a lot closer than in ‘08, but that Obama would win. The margin would be narrow, but the outcome would not be an all-night cliffhanger. That turned out to be about right. In ’08, Obama won by 7.3 percent of the popular vote, just about the median margin for all elections in U.S. history. (It was just shy of FDR’s margin over Thomas Dewey in 1944.)  In ’12, Obama won by only 2.3 percent of the popular vote, which is the fifth smallest since 1900. (It was just under George W. Bush’s 2.5 percent margin against John Kerry, an election that was also considered a squeaker.)

I said there would be a 15-to-25 percentage point gap between under-30 young vote for Obama and the 65+ senior vote for Obama. In ’08, the gap was 21 percent; and in ’12, a preliminary survey by Pew projected it would be 20 percent. In fact, according to exit polls, the ‘12 gap between young and old was 16 points. So age polarization did moderate slightly. From ’08 to ’12, all age groups voted about 3 percent more for Romney. But Millennials tipped somewhat more steeply to Romney (about 5 percent) and the Silent a bit less. Let me go back to the postwar history of the presidential “generation gap” and update the Pew chart here. My edits in red show the actual ’12 exit poll results.

Why the moderation—or shrinkage—of the Obama youth margin from ‘08? Pre-election surveys identifying this youth shift away from Obama found that it was generated mostly by young whites (especially non-college young whites who have been hit hardest by the post-2008 economy) and only to a lesser extent by young minorities. The CIRCLE crosstabs on the exit poll, shown below, confirm that this is indeed what happened. Note that this time, unlike in ’08, the majority of young whites (51 percent) voted for the GOP.

This should not be a surprise. Unlike McCain, who struck many Millennials in ’08 as simply “too old,” Romney came across as more youthful and did not present the same obvious age contrast with Obama. Also, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Millennials are attracted to Romney’s cool, analytical, consensus-seeking persona—just as they have been attracted to many of these same qualities in Obama. The huge positive shift to Romney among under-50 whites after the first debate was largely attributed to the popular discovery that Romney was not an eccentric hothead like McCain or committed culture warrior like Rick Perry. This discovery brought Romney back into the race and hugely complicated Team Obama’s campaign strategy. Ultimately, however, it was not enough to put Romney over the top.

Although I’ve reported on several surveys pointing to declining youth enthusiasm for the election, I’ve also insisted that the Millennial Generation is destined to be a civic force to be reckoned with. My entire generational model points in that direction. True to my model, Millennials pulled through—surprising many who had predicted they would stay home. In fact, according to the latest CIRCLE estimates, the ‘12 youth voter participation rate (at least 49 percent, the count is not over yet) was nearly as strong as it was in ’08 (52 percent). This rate is already higher than ’04 (48 percent) and much higher than in the last election in which Gen-Xers totally filled the under-30 age bracket (1996: 37 percent).

In ’12 as in ’08, the youth vote determined the outcome—meaning that if the under-30 vote had simply split 50-50, McCain and Romney would have won. This cannot be said of any election earlier than 2008, going all the way back to the 1930s. The youth vote likewise determined the outcome of all the major battleground states that went this time to Obama: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Many who expected a GOP victory clearly hoped that a lot fewer youth voters would show up at the polls this year. This did not happen. Or, if it did happen to some degree, declining excitement probably kept home precisely those young voter categories (noncollege white males) who would have been least likely to vote for Obama. Either way, no advantage for Team Romney.

More generally, the ’12 results showed that the Democrats were mostly right, and the Republicans mostly wrong, about the composition of the turnout. The GOP-ridiculed “D+6” model turned out to be dead on. Also, futures markets like Intrade once again demonstrated their uncanny ability to hone in on the most likely outcome, even when real-time voter surveys were jumping all around. Conservatives who normally praise the virtues of markets should have known this all along.

Let me turn to two further perspectives on the results—income and ethnicity. Each sheds some interesting light on where Romney went wrong and why he fell short.

First, income. As discussed in a previous post, a major Pew survey recently revealed that the significant overall voter shift away from Democratic (and toward Republican) party identification over the last four years has been generated entirely by lower- and middle-income voters. Reason: They have been hardest hit by the economy. Affluent voters, by contrast, actually lean more to Obama and the Democrats in 2012 than in 2008. For Romney to win, it was absolutely essential for him to exploit this opening and harness this disaffection. He had to persuade these voters that the Obama economy had failed them and had stripped them of their security, dignity, and independence. And he had to make his biggest gains (relative to ’08) among lower income brackets.

In this effort he failed. The GOP preference by income bracket in ’12 was even steeper (slightly) than in ’08. Among > $100K voters, Romney won 54 percent; among < $50K voters, he won 38 percent. Compared to McCain in ’08, Romney did better over $100K and worse under $50K. To be sure, Romney faced some unique challenges in appealing to lower-income America—starting with his image as a very wealthy Wall Street wheeler-dealer. But these were surmountable. (Obama too is regularly criticized as an elitist Ivy League legal theorist, yet over time he has learned to handle the issue deftly.) What killed Romney was not the image, but rather the substance he regularly delivered that perfectly matched the image. Notorious example: the surreptitiously taped “47 percent” monologue, which was exactly the wrong message and which remained attached to Romney until the end of the campaign. The remark did untold damage. At long last, Jimmy Carter’s humiliating 1980 loss to the GOP was avenged by his grandson!

Second, ethnicity. And here I’m not sure I have the answers. Romney was the decisive favorite of all white Americans (59 percent).  He was even the decisive favorite of all white American women (56 percent). Yet Romney was also distinctly unpopular among nonwhites: He got the vote of only 27 percent of Hispanics, 26 percent of Asians, and 6 percent of African-Americans. Despite his better overall showing compared to McCain in ‘08, Romney actually lost 4 points among Hispanics and (incredibly) 11 points among Asians.

What’s going on here? Of course, everyone points to John McCain’s and George W. Bush’s conciliatory stance on immigration reform as one reason they didn’t suffer as badly at the hands of minority voters. Maybe. But I don’t think that’s a complete explanation. Romney and Obama actually agree on most of the basics of immigration reform—and though minority immigrants widely approve of Obama’s Dream Act and selective enforcement policy, they also know about his relentless deportation agenda. (Obama has deported more immigrants than any other President.)

I think something deeper, more cultural is at work. An 11 percent decline among Asians? That’s a catastrophe for the GOP. Asians are not known to obsess over immigration reform. They exceed whites in median household income. They are socially conservative, aspire to own property, and admire successful business leaders. In recent elections, I haven’t found one in which they didn’t give the GOP at least 40 percent of their vote.  In 1996, when Dole lost badly to Clinton, Asians actually preferred Dole to Clinton, 48 to 43 percent. So what happened in 2012?

Perhaps this is where Romney’s Mormonism ultimately hurt him—not, as once expected, among white evangelicals (who ended up ignoring theology and voting for him anyway), but among nonwhite minorities (who could not look past the long LDS heritage as a white-only church). Again, I am simply suggesting possibilities. I welcome your suggestions.

We can make two fairly certain predictions for how Romney’s defeat is going to play out for the future of the GOP and for the Republican candidates likely to be running in 2016. One prediction is generational. Romney is likely to be the last Boomer to run as the GOP Presidential candidate. After all, by nearly everyone’s post-mortem consensus, he was the ablest Boomer contender in ’12 and still he lost. In 2016, by contrast, a huge new influx of first-wave Gen-Xers will be flooding onto the GOP primary stage. They are smart, charismatic, and (mostly) have plenty of hands-on executive experience. I’m talking about Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz. And maybe we can add on late-wave Boomers (both born in 1959) Susana Martinez and Scott Brown.

To be sure, not all the these will run for the White House in ’16. And, of those who do, many have sharp edges and as-yet unvetted secrets that could prevent them from going all the way to nomination. But it is an impressive field, and the Democrats have nothing like it in the bull pen.

In fact, it’s easy to imagine a generational reversal in party candidates. The Democrats in 2016 could very well move back to a Boomer candidate (Hillary, we know you’ve been waiting!), who might encounter little serious competition from Xers. Meanwhile, the Republicans are clearly going to put an Xer at the top of their ticket. Moreover—and this is my second prediction—this Xer is very likely to be nonwhite or Hispanic. (Of the contenders listed above, three are Hispanic and two are Indian.) Given Romney’s exit polls, many GOP leaders will regard the elevation of a minority standard bearer for their party as not just a nice-thing-to-do, but as a must-thing-to-do.

Nov 052012

I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes
This is f***’n awesome!
I look incredible.
I’m in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road.

OK, let’s all get our minds of the upcoming election with something completely different.  This post requires just a bit of wind up. In 2006, Bill Strauss and I wrote a book with Pete Markiewicz, Millennials in the Pop Culture.  Somewhere along the way in this book, we explain that every new entertainment genre develops through distinct generational phases.

So to get this started, let’s think back on, e.g., rock ‘n roll. Silent Generation bands got it going in the 1950s, performing mainly to Silent youth fans (Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis). By the 1960s, as the popularity of rock music grew, the Silent were performing it for mainly Boomer youth fans (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary). By the 1970s, Boomer bands were performing it for Boomer youth, often first-wave performing to last-wave (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin). By the 1980s, Boomers were performing it for Xer youth fans (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna). And then by the 1990s, Xers started taking over as performers (Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers) to younger Xers as their fans. And so on.

The point here is that every phase is characterized by some very new innovation in style, mood, or theme. Think, e.g., how the emergence of Boomer fans in the mid- to late-60s made possible the huge emergence of protest rock, soul, and “acid” rock—unknown in the ‘50s, and pushing the “generation gap” to its acrimonious apogee. Or how Boomer performers in the ‘70s gave rise to a new privatism and hedonism unknown to Silent song writers. Or how first-wave Gen-X fans in the ‘80s made possible the new energy and pragmatism of “new wave.” And let’s not even talk about the dark pall of edginess and death descending over the ‘90s once Xers started performing for Xers… Such was the intense collective self-derogation of Gen-Xers that no one even wanted to be “mainstream”—hence terms “alt” and “grunge” rock were born. Along with colors like plaid brown and Raider’s-Jersey black. And so on.

OK, forgive me for this long digression.  Now let me extend this schema to hip hop as an entertainment genre. Hip hop too has had its generational phases, only these have occurred just about exactly one generation behind those of rock:

Phase 1: During most of the 1970s, rap was performed by Boomers for Boomers (“old school” MCs like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang). Hip hop remained an informal and largely unprofitable “street fad”—with a huge emphasis on spontaneity and urban authenticity.

Phase 2: In the 1980s, the genre accelerated once Boomers (like legendary promoter Def Jam’s Russell Simmons) started performing to Xer youth. That’s when Platinum “rap” albums began making real money. Hip hop began pushing the edge on violence, sex, and drugs—and acquiring its trademark edge and swagger. Late in the ‘80s, Boomer performers like Ice T and Public Enemy’s Chuck D (along with some first-wave Xers like Dr. Dre) harnessed hip hop to a critique of white racism and calls for a new-style black assertion. Hip hop had become a national “wedge” issue.

Phase 3: In the early ‘90s, a new and younger batch of Gen-X performers emerged who would eclipse the remaining Boomers, dominate the rest of the decade, and take hip hop to unprecedented levels of notoriety and, ultimately, acceptance. All were born between 1968 and 1972—including MC Ren, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Missy Elliott—and thus came of age at the height of the violent urban crime wave of the early ‘90s. In their first hit CDs, many glamorized “gangsta rap” and pushed the hip hop lifestyle to outrageous extremes of brutality and cynicism.  Several (most famously, Tupac and B.I.G.) perished in shootouts.

Phase 3.5: The tone started changing in the late ‘90s, with the rapid decline in urban crime and the arrival a new generation of Millennial fans. The most popular hip hop artists began blunting their edges, lightening their messages, accepting their prestige, and taking pride in—even boasting of—their success and affluence.

Phase 4: Since 2000, a gradually aging galaxy of rap artists has been performing to virtually all-Millennial youth audiences. In the early 2000s decade, hip hop was at last accepted by mainstream corporate America (recall Micky D’s break-danced-themed “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign) as a legitimate genre–much as Ronald and Nancy Reagan legitimized rock music twenty years earlier (in 1983) by defending the appearance of the Beach Boys on the Washington Mall. By 2004, billboards began showing rap stars dressed in suits reading the Wall Street Journal. By the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, later-wave Gen-X performers (born, 1973-1981: 50 Cent, Nas, Ja Rule, Ludacris, Kanye West, Ma$e, The Game) were emerging from the shadow of their fabled “elders,” who were now in their mid-30s.

So how to sum up Phase 4? And where does it seem to be leading? Let me quote directly from our 2006 book—as far as we could see at that time:

Regardless of the age or generation of the performers, hip hop is changing during the Millennial youth era in a direction sometimes chided as “hip pop” or “pop rap.”  While rappers like Nelly or Lil’ Kim remind listeners that the genre clearly remains on the dangerous side of the Millennial experience, down and dirty is no longer cutting edge.  In theme, the new style is more open to humor, to manners, to commitment, to religion, and to success.  In sound, it has a denser and more digitally overdubbed “produced” feel.  Background melodies are returning.  The mood is often playful.  Often, today’s rap is hard to distinguish from rhythm and blues.

OK, here finally is where I would like to start a conversation on Phase 5 of hip hop—Millennial rap artists performing for Millennial fans. It’s now the 2010s.  And just to get the conversation going, let me start by introducing the following song by Macklemore (Ben Haggerty, born 1983), a white rapper from the Seattle area. This is—no joke–a rap song about how great it is to buy from a thrift store. I found this hysterical.  Thanks here to Bob Filipczak for the heads up:

Let’s get started. What’s Phase 5 about Macklemore?  I suggest the following:

> OK, he’s white.  Yeah, so were Beastie Boys, Kid Rock, Vanilla Ice, eminem, and a very short list of other Xers.  But among Millennials, hey, it’s no longer pioneering.  It’s just not any big deal.

> He’s very local, a big Seattle guy, often performing locally and writing songs about local culture heroes.  He recently performed a rap-obituary to legendary Seattle baseball announcer Dave Niehaus before 50,000 Mariner fans. Hip-hop meets major league baseball. Conventional loyalty to the community. Yes, Millennial.

> He’s grown his music, merch, and fanbase entirely on his own on the web, without any music label support. If you’re interested in his career, see this interesting bio-video. Sure, he’d love big money and a high national profile—but not unless it grows out of his own talent and connections. He’s clearly patient about success.

> He’s musically eclectic, wandering wildly from the austere Xer rap beat.  In “Let’s Dance,” he merges rap with EDM (Electronic Dance Music), which has become infectiously popular in his generation. I know that some would say EDM is like an auto-tuned cancer, but (again) no one can deny its popularity.

> Ever notice that Millennials just don’t do swag like Xers? It’s there, but somehow just doesn’t have the same don’t-care-if-you-die-or-I-die intensity.  Millennial rappers so often like to reveal their hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities that half the time they veer into R&B or self-deprecating satire. Macklemore talks freely about his problems with addiction—like it’s a real problem, you know, that with maturity he will eventually outgrow.  In “Thrift Shop,” he parodies the vintage hip-hop obsession with costly bling.

> He’s progressive about gender roles—unlike first-wave Gen-X rappers, who were often just about the most homophobic “gangsta” braggarts you could imagine.  Take a look at “Same Love,” certainly too polemical for my tastes (as a song), but a good idea of where his head is at. Meanwhile a new generation of female vocalists (most recently, Angel Haze, in a searing new take off on eminem) is using rap—of all genres—to take devastating aim at mysogyny and rape.

> Finally, let’s explore this whole “thrift shop” angle.  OK, it’s one thing for songs around 1990 to obsess over the luxuries I don’t possess, and for songs by 2000 over luxuries I do now possess. But now, young people can no longer pretend. Hey, we just can’t afford it, but maybe we can still be happy without it.

And if you still doubt that Millennials are turning hip hop in a fundamentally different direction than where Gen-Xers took it, let me just leave you with the following rap video—this one by last-wave Millennial Amor “Lilman” Arteaga (age 9), officially endorsed by the Brooklyn Borough President.

Yeah, that’s right you Xers, “pull ‘em up”!

We are indeed entering a new era.

Oct 142012

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that for Romney to have a chance of catching up with Obama at least one of three things had to happen. At the top of that list of three: Have a really good performance in the debates. It was already clear at that time that a near-record share of voters would be tuning into the debates and that most voters had very low expectations for Romney’s performance. Those who have paid some attention to Romney over the years and know that in fact he comes across as pretty coherent and pretty smart in these debate formats suspected that a real “expectations upset” was in the offing.

In the first debate, that kind of upset was just what happened. The Romney campaign, once despondent, is now re-energized. The Obama campaign, once on confident cruise-control, is now scurrying madly.

More recently, Team Obama may have hoped that their side would get a material boost from the good-news BLS report showing the unemployment rate sinking below 8.0 percent.  Not much boost there, though some on the GOP side (like the inimitable Jack Welch, celebrity ex-CEO) made themselves look silly by accusing the Labor Department civil servants of participating in a vast conspiracy.

Then came the VP debate starring Biden and Ryan, Silent (born 1942) versus Gen-Xer (born 1970). Who won that one? It’s like what they said about Nixon-Kennedy. If you just read the transcript or listened to the audio, I think Biden probably won. But those who watched it probably thought that Ryan came across as more composed, more respectful, less nasty. Treasure this moment: Not often that you will ever see a Gen-Xer seem nicer, head to head, against a Silent.  Imagine Jim Lehrer debating Glenn Beck. Or Bill Moyers debating eminem.  It’s as though the Xer, not the Silent, once had etiquette lessons.  Next thing you know, we’ll be firing all those 70ish Silent WalMart greeters and telemarketers who (we thought) have been so effective at “nice,” and replacing them with 40something Ryan clones.  OK, maybe not. At any rate, the verdict is in, and the VP debate did not give Obama any perceptible poll bounce. Both debates, I think, gave Team Romney a huge “niceness” boost, which is something their ticket really needed to help them with the all-important undecided voter.

Last time, I cited realclearpolitics to show how badly things were going for Romney.  At that time, he was at least five percentage points behind Obama in the national polls—and hadn’t led in a national poll in nearly two months.  Well, that has certainly changed.  As of this moment, Romney is marginally ahead by about one percentage point—and it’s Obama who hasn’t led in a national poll since just before the first debate.

I also cited a devastating survey by Pew showing Romney trailing Obama by eight percentage points and trailing him as well in virtually every measure of both likeability and competence.  Well, that too has changed.  A new Pew survey reports that voters (especially independents, 72% to 14%) overwhelmingly thought that Romney won the debate—and that among all registered voters Romney has completely erased Obama’s substantial prior lead. Among “likely voters,” indeed, it’s Romney who now enjoys a four percentage point lead.  And who is viewed more “favorably”?  Well, believe it or not, Pew now says that the two are now tied in favorability (Romney at 50%, Obama at 49%).  A month ago, Obama led on this measure by 10 percentage points (Romney at 45%, Obama at 55%).

OK, now let’s dig a bit deeper into this generationally.  To make this easy to comment on, let me reproduce the Pew crosstabs onto this screen as follows:

Overall, in this survey’s favorability rating, Obama lost 6 points and Romney gained 5.  Net, +11.  Note that Romney’s gains were greater among women than men (+15 versus +6). I would chalk this up to likeability, but then again I’m sure I’d be accused of sexism if I tried to defend this opinion. The gains were disproportionate among whites rather than blacks (+15 versus +3). And, in age groups, it’s fascinating to see large gains for Romney among the Silent (+15), Xers (+21), and Millennials (+17)—but actually a slight gain for Obama among Boomers (‒3).

Can anyone tell me why the debate struck Boomers so differently—that is, less favorably for Romney—than it did all other generations?  If so, please let me know.  My own opinion is simply that Romney has never seemed attractive in the eyes of his own generation.  Boomers want a “values” candidate, and in Romney they see an analytical whiz kid, long on numbers, short on soul.  In the GOP primaries, he consistently lost to the likes of Gingrich and Santorum among Boomers even while just as consistently doing best among Millennials and (a bit less consistently) among Xers. That’s my take. I’d like to know yours.

Let me add this further breakdown of the Pew survey, this time looking solely at white voters.  Since most of the movement in candidate support throughout year has been greatest among whites and least among blacks, it makes the generational point in more striking terms.

Note first the change among white Americans age 50+: Very little, a mere two points, one point less for Obama and one point more for Romney.  Now look at white Americans under age 50: A vast shift of 28 points! As in the earlier (all ethnicities) table, there are not large differences by income or education. But there are big differences by age. Whatever Romney is doing, it is certainly turning the heads of whites under 50 across the board.

Finally, let’s look at another Pew report, which—though pre-debate—is also bad news for the Obama camp.  It shows that Americans under age 30 are considerably less engaged in 2012 than they were in 2008.  The shares of under-30s saying they have “given a lot of thought to the election” or “follow campaign news very closely” are both down by 17 percentage points—a much steeper decline than for older generations.  The share of youth saying they will “definitely” vote is down 9 points (from 72 to 63 percent), while that share has actually risen for all older Americans. Needless to say, Obama depends upon a huge under-30 voting margin to offset what he will surely lose among older voters.

In there any silver lining in this report for Obama? Maybe this: Engagement is down less for young women (who lean more Democratic) than for young men; and it is not down at all for young African Americans (who lean 20-to-1 Democratic). With luck, Obama may be able to maintain the intensity of the pro-Obama youth preference, even if he cannot maintain the overall magnitude of the youth vote.

My own prediction for the election remains unchanged. As I have said all along, I think Obama will win by a modest margin (smaller than 2008, but not a cliffhanger). And I think the House will certainly stay GOP and the Senate will be split down the middle.

Back in an earlier blog, I also wrote that my scenario would be a difficult one for the economy, because it would maximize the odds of a damn-the-torpedoes “fiscal cliff” scenario, which might very well throw the economy back into a recession (or worsen the recession if we are already in one). Others are voicing a different opinion.  Since the Dow has been falling ever since Romney’s poll numbers have been rising, they are saying that a Romney victory raises the probability that the deficit will be squeezed faster and that a monetary “hawk” will replace Bernanke at the Fed. OK, I get this: If you believe (like Paul Krugman) that supercharged zero-interest promises and endless fiscal stimulus are all that prevent us from spiraling back down into recession, then, yes, Romney is actually bad news for the economy. Austerity economics sure isn’t working wonders anywhere else in the world. Why should we think we would work well here? I guess this view assumes that Romney would implement austerity. But is that a valid assumption? I’m just asking questions here.



Sep 232012

Regrettably, I’ve been away from this blog too long—the result of too much travelling and a bit too much work.  I’m hoping for an easier fall and winter.

Seven weeks have passed since I looked at the generational dynamics behind the Obama-Romney contest, when the overall balance seemed fairly even.  Now, it’s tipping clearly if not decisively for Obama.  RCP currently shows a 3.3 percent national margin for Obama, but this probably understates the incumbent’s advantage: RCP records not a single national survey giving Romney even a minimal margin since Gallup’s tracking poll in late August.  Global futures markets like InTrade now tip 70/30 for Obama.  (If you’re confident Romney is going to win, you can at least expect to make some money.) And for true gloom and doom for Romney, take a look at this new Pew survey.  It shows Obama ahead by 8 percentage points overall among likely voters, and leading Romney on almost every issue and every scale of likeability.

The last month has been genuinely and relentlessly awful for Mitt Romney.

First came his selection of Paul Ryan as VP, which reinforced the male-white-accounting-econowonk side of the ticket (not exactly where Romney needed reinforcement—and there were so many great alternative VP picks roughly Ryan’s age) while tying Romney to a very specific plan to cut the cost of Medicare.  Nothing could have pleased Axelrod and Plouffe and others in the Democratic HQ more than to change the topic of conversation from how slowly the economy is recovering under Obama to how much Romney wants to throw seniors over the cliff.  I actually agree with most of the fundamental elements of the Ryan plan (incentives and budgets for health-care providers are surely coming, like them or not).  But hey Romney, wait until you’re President and appoint Ryan as your director of OMB or your head of CMS.  But add him to your ticket?  Probably not the best idea.

Second, there was the GOP’s lukewarm convention.  The Democrats’ wasn’t much either, but then again they didn’t have to prove anything: Everybody already knows who the Obamas and Clintons are.  The GOP had to persuade the public why the presidential mantle of office should be transferred to this relative unknown.  They needed to put the Democrats on trial for keeping America mired in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.  They needed to excoriate the other party for the suffering of America’s unemployed and underemployed middle- and lower-income citizens (just as the Democrats surely would have done to the GOP had a Republican been the incumbent).  But the Romney campaign did very little of this.  Instead, they talked about budget-balancing, too much regulation, and Obama’s “anti-business” attitudes.  Wow.  And with the growing danger of war or broader war mounting in the Mideast and East Asia, the GOP could have mounted a principled critique, say, of Obama’s track record on his policies of engagement with Iran, Russia, and China.  But no.  Virtually nothing at all on national security issues, which subsequently (and remarkably) allowed the Democrats at their convention to look responsible in an area where their party has been perennially vulnerable.

OK, a missed opportunity with the convention.  But (and here’s number three), Team Romney subsequently failed to follow up with any of the policy strategy and detail he “didn’t have time for” earlier.  Instead, he has been dogged by gaffes and garbled misstatements in poorly staged impromptu interviews—while getting rhetorically outmaneuvered at every turn by Team Obama.  The worst fumble of all was his off-the-record suggestion that the growing share of Americans who pay no federal income taxes (“47 percent”) are essentially lost to the Republican Party.  Mindboggling.  This poor, struggling, laid-off, and dependent 47 percent in fact constitutes a growing constituency for the GOP (a point I will return to shortly).  Rather than express outrage that today’s horrible economy has stripped them of their livelihoods and independence, Romney is throwing them under the bus.

It’s almost as though Romney is channeling Herbert Hoover and can’t recall Ronald Reagan.  When he tries to talk like a conservative, George Will recently commented, Romney sometimes sounds like one of those robotic German spies in vintage WWII movies: He’s memorized lots of facts, but he’ll never know who Stan Musial is.

Fourth, and most recently, comes Ben Bernanke’s announcement of QE3 and an “indefinite” guarantee of near-zero interest rates, which was soon followed by a sizeable surge in the Dow.  For the first time—even though the real economy hasn’t done much of anything–Obama is matching or even overtaking Romney in his perceived ability to handle the economy.  A very large and somewhat amusing gap has now appeared in how political partisans now view the economy.  Back in early August, 71 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats said they were hearing “mostly bad news about the economy.”  Today, 60 percent of Republicans continue to say that—but only 15 percent of Democrats.  That’s a 45-point spread.

Is the economy doing much better?  I say no.  I don’t think it’s doing better at all.  (Indeed, I think it’s likely we have already entered a new recession and just don’t know it yet.)  So I think the GOP—which is now hopping mad at Bernanke for giving the economy a “sugar-water high” just weeks before the election—is quite mistaken about Bernanke’s motives.  Chairman Ben did not go “all in” with QE3 because he wants to be re-chosen as Fed head by Obama.  He did it because he knows the economy is in really deep trouble.  (I will come back to this in another post.)

So what are Mitt’s odds at this point?  Quite honestly, they aren’t great, and if I had to make a wager right now I would certainly bet on a modest Obama victory—a smaller voter margin than 2008, but not a cliffhanger.  As for Congress, the House will certainly remain in GOP hands (Pelosi’s sudden optimism seems delusional) and the Senate will probably be split 50-50 right down the middle.

Of course, a comeback is possible.  It’s a tall order.  For Romney to rally and win, some combination of the following three-and-a-half things will have to happen.

(1) Romney has a great debate performance.  Without it, he’s toast.  With it, he could get back into the running.  The boost could be big precisely because voter expectations at this point are so low.  And because lots of voters still don’t know him very well—aside from the gaffes they hear about in the news.  According the surveys, voters are really looking forward to the debates: Fully two-thirds now say they will be “very” or “somewhat” helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for, the largest share since Clinton-versus-Bush, Sr., in 1992.  Keep in mind as well that Romney got plenty of practice debating in the primaries and often performed very well in them, showing plenty of wit, humor, and grace under fire.

(2) National security goes critical, which will probably hurt Obama.  It’s hard to recall a recent election–maybe Clinton-Dole in 1996?—in which foreign affairs has played such a minor role.  Which is incredible when you think we now have 70,000 troops fighting in Asia (and getting shot at and killed by our own uniformed “allies”) together with thousands more fighting more surreptitiously, with and without deadly predators, in dozens of other far-flung nations.  And the temperature is now getting hotter on most fronts, with Islamist violence clearly rising, Syria gripped in civil war, Egypt and much of North Africa run by new and unstable regimes, Iran and Israel (and inevitably the United States) near the brink of war in the Persian Gulf, and, most recently, a new risk of war in the China Sea.  At some point, geopolitics may well burst into 2012 election like a wild and uninvited guest–to the White House at least, which will likely be put mostly on the defensive.  Romney may or may not be able to leverage the opportunity.  In any case, Obama doesn’t have enough time left for a “wag the dog” response.

(3) Another bad shoe drops on the economy, which will certainly hurt Obama.  Obama “owns” current economic performance in 2012 nearly as much as Hoover “owned” it in 1932.  Most Democratic partisans understand this, explaining their desire to play up positive news and to rejoice at the Fed-triggered revival in the Dow.  Voters mostly think that Obama is trying hard, and so long as GDP and employment are growing ever so slightly (unlike 1932, obviously), they may go along with his argument that he is at least much better than the GOP alternative.  But what if these numbers, which are now merely flatlining, suddenly turn decisively down between now the election, raising new and urgent talk of yet another recession?  Perceptions about Obama’s “slow progress” and “incomplete” grade on the economy would, in this case, quickly shift—on the issue that everyone agrees is most on voters’ minds.

I promised three-and-a-half things, so let me add one more consideration that is related to the condition of today’s economy and is more speculative.  I want to talk for a moment about class and income deprivation, and how these may feed into a new sort of partisanship.

To mention class, of course, is to raise perceptions that nearly everyone figures work against the GOP.  And a recent Pew report (“Yes, the Rich are Different”) makes it clear just how tough it is, once the words “rich” and “poor” are mentioned, for most voters to say much that’s flattering about the GOP.

The report, which is well worth reading for its own sake, tries to analyze how Americans think about class.  When most Americans are simply asked what they think about “the rich,” the responses reflect an revealing mix of praise and damnation.  On the other hand, most Americans agree that rich people are more “intelligent” and more “hardworking” than the average American.  (More “hardworking” is, I think, a new development: Fifty years ago I’m quite sure most Americans would not have said that.)  On the other hand, most Americans also believe that the rich are much more likely to be more “greedy” and “dishonest” than the average American.

Yet it’s when the report assesses changes over time, especially from 2008 to 2012, that its findings really tip hard against the GOP.  Point (1): Americans across-the-board, in both parties, feel that since 2008 the gap between the rich and poor has been widening.  Point (2): Most Americans, again in both parties, feel this widening is a bad thing for our country.  Point (3): Most think that the Republicans will help mostly the rich and that the Democrats will help mostly the poor and middle class.  Point (4): Most think point (3) is especially true for Mitt Romney (at least, those who knew enough about Romney to have an opinion).  This is a veritable syllogism of bad news for the Romney camp.

So now let me bring your attention to another Pew survey, which appeared at nearly the same time: “A Closer Look at the Parties in 2012: GOP Makes Big Gains among White Working-Class Voters.” It comes to conclusions which, while not contradicting the other report, point in a totally different direction.  It’s fascinating to contemplate these two reports side by side.

The report starts with the unsurprising finding that total voter identification by party has faded somewhat for the Democrats since 2008 (from 51 to 48 percent) and has gained somewhat for the GOP (from 39 to 43 percent). Not including “leaners,” the GOP has a net gain of 3 percentage points. Yet here’s the surprise: More than all of this total gain for the GOP has occurred in the lowest income brackets.  Among the highest income brackets, the Democrats have actually gained share.

The report shows, in addition, that minorities at all ages are just about as Democrat-favoring in 2012 as in 2008 (and more than in 2004), while nearly all the Democrat identification losses are among whites–and virtually all of these losses are among lower-income whites.  (High-income whites are just as pro-Obama today as in 2008.)  In 2008, whites were strong pro-GOP in every income bracket above $50,000.  In 2012, they are strong pro-GOP in every bracket above $30,000.

The same holds true if you substitute education for income.  College-plus America (with a four-year degree or more) is more pro-Democratic in 2012 than it was in 2008; college-minus America (everybody else) is more pro-GOP.

You’re welcome to view the crosstab data yourself, graciously provided by Pew.  Let me summarize the main findings in the following graphic.

So how do we make sense of these very different perspectives?  My own view is that, yes, a sense of class awareness—and class division—has grown since 2008 in ways that tarnish the image of the GOP in eyes of America’s have-nots and have-lesses.  But these are also the Americans who have been hurt the worst over the last four years in unemployment, lost income, lost wealth, and foreclosed homes.  (See the new annual CBO report on income and poverty for the gory details.)  Their sense of class grievance is overweighed by their sense of performance failure on the party now in the White House: This is Obama’s economy, he failed, it really hurts, and I don’t want four more years of this.  Wealthy Americans just aren’t feeling the “really hurts” part.

Overall, from 2008 to 2012, the share of all Americans who call themselves “lower” or “lower-middle” class has grown from 25 to 32 percent.  (This itself is a disturbing finding, again brought to us by Pew Research.)  More than all of that 7 percentage point increase has gone to the GOP.  The share of GOP supporters who call themselves “lower class” has jumped from 13 to 23 percent while the “lower class” share of Democratic supporters has risen much less (from 29 to 33 percent).

Moreover, areas that do not traditionally vote Democratic, but swung blue for Obama, appear to be swinging back the most in this election. The Midwest, South, and Mountain regions show large declines of 6 to 9 points in net support for Democrats over Republicans, while traditionally bluer regions like New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast show little or no decline.  (This is reflected in the rural/urban split in my table.) In other words, traditionally Republican voters who “took a chance” on Obama and are hurting in today’s economy may be feeling buyers’ remorse.

Whether all this affects the outcome of the election is uncertain. Clearly, the aftermath of the Great Recession provides the GOP with some real opportunities for a full-throated populist message.  Just as clearly, Mitt Romney is probably the candidate least equipped to deliver such a message.  The “47 percent” miscue says it all.  And for this reason, the GOP is now likely to lose the election.  (You notice that I called this merely “half a point” for Romney.)

Yet there are other implications likely to follow from this growing two-way rip tide of class tension in America.  Ominously, it may portend a further widening of the blue-red polarization of America once the 2012 exit polls are counted, with a growing regional and urban-rural split in voter preferences.  We may see the disappearance of the “purple” states that appeared in 2008, and the reappearance of more bright-blue and bright-red states.  By 2016, assuming Obama wins, a crowded and all-Gen-X field of GOP primary contestants may choose to tack far more in the populist direction than did McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012.

And what about voting by generation?  The huge generational gap remains: The Silent will swing way to the GOP this year, and the Millennials will swing way to the Democrats.  But on top of this preference, there is certain to be a distinct class twist.  You can expect the huge anti-Obama margin among seniors to acquire an extra passion among the hard-beaten, Tea-Party, “heartland” edge. Likewise, you can expect the huge pro-Obama margin among young adults to pick up its greatest energy among collegians and among affluent and urban young professionals.  According to the New York Times’ recent feature story on non-college Millennials, many of them are struggling but few of them plan on voting for Obama.  More to the point, however, few of them plan to vote for Romney either—or even feel they are in any way on his radar screen.

Jul 312012

This happens often.  After I write about generational drivers or changes in the social mood, readers will contact me and ask: OK, so much for the drivers and the theory, Neil—what do you think will actually happen?

So let me try to pre-empt those readers.  In my last post, I talked about how and why different generations lean toward or against the 2012 presidential candidates.  In this post, I’ll talk about the connection between generations and some of the more conventional ways pundits currently handicap the election.  I won’t exactly say who I think will win, but I will discuss some of the indicators I am following closely.

Futures Markets.  Everyone knows that Republicans believe in futures markets (and in weird options and derivatives based thereon, like CDFs) more than anyone else.  So here’s the bad news they have to swallow: Futures markets are now predicting Obama to beat Romney by roughly 16 percentage points.  (This is not the predicted voter margin in the election; it is the probability margin by which of most investors think Obama will sneak by in at least a razor-thin victory.)  That’s 57-40 percent on Intrade or 58-42 on Iowa Futures.  Obama has been leading in these markets since last fall.  Bless those markets.  Because of the “law of one price” (look this one up under “arbitrage”), all of these futures market prices have to match, worldwide.  Even brainy liberals (see Infotopia by Cass Sunstein, ) give very high praise to futures markets.

I agree that futures markets have a great track record and need to be taken seriously.  Why do they lean more pro-Obama than the weekly polls?  Maybe they sense that the sentiment for Romney is merely the way Americans vent their anger (always at the incumbent when talking to pollsters) before settling down and voting for the incumbent after all.  Or maybe they sense that the strong preference of the rising generation for a cool and pragmatic Gen Xer as POTUS really does represent where the nation is heading—and that most voters will wake to that fact come November 6.  Young Pompey once declared (to aging Sulla) that “more people worship the rising than the setting sun.”  Maybe the markets agree.

Then again, markets no less than polls can be greatly mistaken this far away from the election.  At the very least, I think that buying a Romney contract on Intrade at $4.00 and waiting to sell it once it hits $4.50 is an extremely safe trade—since sooner or later Romney is bound to have a surge carrying him at least this far.  Even John McCain in 2008 surged in early September to 0.47 in the futures markets.  It is also possible that the markets could gradually drift to a sizable Romney advantage between now and mid-October, and that after Romney wins everyone will congratulate the markets for being so prescient.

The Economy.  According to the Pew Research Center, Romney leads Obama in his handling of one big issue, the economy, no matter how you phrase the question.  And the economy—for example, the creation of jobs and the revival of wage growth—is now far more important to voters than any other issue (environment, gay marriage, immigration, foreign policy, what have you) by a very large margin.  This is a big advantage for Romney.  The unemployment rate is now 8.2 percent; looking at current indicators, it may not decline at all between now and November.  No President since FDR has won an election with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent.  (That was the rate in November of 1984, when Reagan won re-election; and unlike Obama, Reagan brought the rate down from the date of his first election.)  See The New York TimesFiveThirtyEight column for a detailed update on the link between the economy and election outcomes.

The economy is as good an argument for Romney as the futures markets are for Obama.  Still, it has potential weaknesses.  Voters have yet to buy into Romney’s economic program—or even to understand it—in any big way.  Is Romney going to cut deficits faster than Obama?  Who knows?  However he runs deficits, Romney says he wants to do it more through tax cuts than spending increases.  Is John Q. Public OK with this?  Also, keep in mind the “no President since FDR” proviso.  If the public comes to equate George W. Bush with Hoover—and Obama with FDR—well then all bets are off.  FDR won as an incumbent in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.9% and in 1940 with a rate of 14.6%.

I agree that if the economy worsens in the next couple of months, or if we simply learn more about how bad the economy now is (at least one eminent forecasting group thinks we’re already in a recession, it just hasn’t been called yet), the news will certainly give a further boost to Romney.  But the link between each generation’s pocketbook and vote is seldom simple or direct.  The Silent Generation has done the best economically in recent years and will never bear much of the burden of large deficits, yet the Silent are the most anti-Obama.  For the Millennials, it’s the other way around.  Liberals often complain that red-zone Americans would switch parties if they only understood their own economic self-interest.  Conservatives say the same today about Americans under age 30.  The problem is, most people don’t respond to piecemeal economic incentives.  They either do, or do not, buy into a whole vision.

Likeability.  How much do you like the candidate?  How much would you like to have a beer with him?  These are the sorts of warm-and-fuzzy questions that many political analysts believe turn the tide in an election.  In most of the critical elections I can remember, GOP candidates have had the likeability advantage: Reagan over Carter; Bush Sr. over Dukakis; Bush Jr. over Kerry.  But this election, it’s tipping the other way: The Democratic candidate in 2012 is currently much more likeable than the GOP candidate.  It hardly matters what you ask—which candidate is more “friendly,” “connecting,” “honest,” “good,” “trying,” or “engaged,”—Obama comes out ahead, typically by double digits.  Likeability could be a huge plus in an era of great anxiety when many voters will want to go with their “gut.  It certainly worked for FDR.

Speaking of whom, there actually was a time when the least likeable candidate was, routinely, the Republican.  And that was the 1930s and 1940s.  Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon were less likable than FDR, and Tom Dewey was less likeable than just about anyone, including FDR and Harry Truman.  So Democrats, yes, can be likeable.  Are we reverting to the last Fourth Turning in party likeability?  Or is there a simpler explanation?  Perhaps Mitt Romney, whom nearly everyone who knows him would call him very “likeable,” has simply not yet had the chance to get his charm on in prime time.  We’ll see.

Intangibles & Wildcards.  I give most of the intangibles at this point to Romney.  He is the challenger, and it is an old maxim (though some disagree) that challengers do better late in the campaign.  A much larger share of his supporters say they are “enthusiastic” about this election—no doubt reflecting the higher relative energy of older voters this time around.  He also remains relatively unknown, which means that millions of Americans will be taking a close look at him for the first time in the ten weeks between the GOP convention and the election.  Since much of what is known about Romney thus far is negative (thanks to the attacks from his primary opponents and to the Obama campaign’s efforts to “predefine” him), it is likely that his strengths—for example, his intelligence, wit, and dedication to his family and the community—will get plenty of play.  Romney may surprise voters during the debates by coming across smarter and warmer than most voters are expecting.

Another possible plus for Romney is the “reverse coattails effect.”  Since the GOP are odds-on favorites to retain a majority in the House and gain a majority in the Senate, Romney could be pulled along by state and local candidates.  That assumes of course that most voters prefer to vote a straight ticket and have a single-party government.  It’s often said that Americans are happy with divided government, but according to one recent study a large (and possibly rising) majority say no, they really do want one party in charge.

Any intangibles for Obama?  Confidence, maybe.  Though Obama supporters are less enthusiastic, they are more likely to say they want to cast a positive vote for their candidate (as opposed to voting against the other guy) and are a lot more confident than Romney supporters that their candidate will win.  Obama must hope that confidence doesn’t morph into complacency and that his supporters are still ready to sprint.  Many pundits also say that Obama has an advantage in the electoral college by leading in the bigger states.  That could make a difference, but only if the popular vote is extremely close.

As for wildcards—meaning sudden big surprises—these usually break for the incumbent Commander in Chief, unless voters associate them with mistakes made by the incumbent.  An attack on Iran (by Israel and/or the United States, though the most likely date now mentioned in the media is October, after the election), would likely break favorably for Obama.  Seismic financial news (like a crash triggered by an impending breakup of the Euro) may not break as well, since it may persuade many voters that the world needs better global economic leadership.

Obama and Romney.  Let me conclude with a few thoughts on the two candidates themselves—and how they are, or are not, representative of their generation.

As readers of our books and this blog know, I consider Obama (born, 1961) to be a first-cohort member of Generation X (born 1961-81).  The Gen-X dates we’ve explained and defended at length elsewhere (too many books to hyperlink!).  But what about Obama?  Does he fit the basic Xer picture?  I’ve always thought so: Son of a new-age mom; child of a broken family; growing up disoriented amid incessant travel, change, and social experimentation; coming of age agoraphobic, feeling (as he puts it) “like an outsider”; and ultimately constructing his own persona (like Gatsby), a quality I see in many successful Xers.  What’s more, Obama knows he’s not a Boomer: In his books (Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope), he repeatedly mentions how he feels he came along “after” the Boomers and wants to put an end to much that Boomers have done wrong (culture wars, ideological polarization, and so on).  Back in 2008, Obama often referred to this as a contrast between an earlier “Moses” generation and his own “Joshua” generation.

Obviously, opinions differ about who Obama “really” is.  I think he is at heart a canny survivor, a masterful tactician, a pragmatist who doesn’t let emotions cloud his judgment.  He knows when to play rope-a-dope (always let the GOP make the first budget move, then counter), or when to rouse his base by inveighing against Wall Street tycoons (even while hiring them to staff his Treasury), or when to ignore his own base and make a shrewd cost-benefit call (War on Terror by Predators, anyone?).  On the Boomer cusp, Obama is certainly capable of crusading oratory—which adds to his versatility.  Many of the most memorable crisis-era leaders in American history have been, like Obama, Nomad-Prophet hybrids: FDR, Abraham Lincoln, Sam Adams.  Yet clearly Obama would need a very different and far more effective second term—and another opportunity handed to him by history—to enter these ranks.

As for Mitt Romney (born 1947), no one doubts he is a Boomer.  He’s led a committed religious life; he’s always won accolades as a driven achiever; he’s made tons of money as a blue-chip yuppie; he believes in Values and Culture and Principles; and he tends to see America’s future in heavily moralistic terms (for example, in his recent book, No Apology: Believe in America, he juxtaposes his father’s “Greatest Generation” against his own “Worst Generation”—a dark figure of speech that Obama would never use).  Will his religion be a problem?  There is lots more talk about Mormonism as a Christian heresy among older than among younger Americans, that’s for certain.  Many Millennials are impressed by the strong community ethic of Romney’s LDS Church.

One mystery about Romney, though, is the impression he gives to many of his fellow Boomers that he never shared their passionate coming-of-age experience, never broke from Mom and Dad, and never drank from the same deep well of authenticity and inner fire.  We used to call this the “Dan Quayle problem.”  Boomers have never been drawn to someone who seems to paint by the numbers.  In the GOP primaries, when running against Gingrich and Santorum, Romney consistently did worse among Boomers than among other generations.

Yet in the general election, this weakness may rebound to his advantage.  In the GOP primary, Mitt Romney consistently did better with young voters than any of the other candidates (with the occasional exception of Ron Paul).  Millennials may actually like Romney’s cool and precise 7-point memo responses.  (Romney, far more than McCain, will be able to debate Obama this fall on his own Ivy-League level.)  Silent voters, similarly, may also prefer the buttoned-down Romney over the totally unplugged Boomer radical.

Yet at some point, for all of his advantages on paper, Romney will have to show some flame, some focus, and some real killer instinct.  He will have to get ahead, stay ahead, and systematically thwart his opponent’s comebacks.  In a national election, Romney has not yet demonstrated he has that endurance and resolve.  Obama has.

Jul 312012

Pundits have long been predicting that the presidential election will be much closer and much meaner in 2012 than it was in 2008. Closer it now is.According to the RCP Poll Average, the race is now a virtual tie: Incumbent Obama now leads by a mere 1.8 percent over Romney, whereas challenger Obama led McCain by 7.6 percent exactly four years ago. It will certainly revolve around a very different array of issues—much less argument about the war on terror and GOP performance, and a lot more about the stagnating economy and Democratic performance.

In one respect, however, the next election will be a replay of the last: There will be a historically large divide in the preferences of younger voters (under 30) versus older voters (65+). In 2008, this divide (21 percentage points) was wider than in any election since the advent of age-bracketed voting data in the 1960s. The second-biggest divide (16 percentage points) was back in 1972, when nearly half of all young voters voted for McGovern while older voters went overwhelmingly for Nixon.

I’ve been tracking generational leanings in the polls pretty carefully.  The Pew Research Center has issued several reports (most notably, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election) exploring this divide, and Time followed up with its own cover story (“The New Generation Gap”).  More recently, Mike and Morley, Forbes, The New York Times, and many others have also weighed in.

Bottom line: Every generation is today a bit more favorable toward Obama than they were in 2010 and a good deal less favorable than in 2008.  The partisan gap between the Democrat-leaning young and the Republican-leaning old, however, remains as strong as ever—at around 20 percent.

Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats.  This fall, the media focus may shift.  The big story could be how and why today’s angry, aging Silent Generation put the Republicans over the top.  The relevant parallel here is 1972, when Nixon was able to split the young Boomer vote with McGovern—and then crush McGovern with all voters over age 30.  (Nixon’s popular margin in 1972, 23.2 percent of the electorate, is the fourth largest in U.S. history.)  Romney, of course, cannot hope for Nixon’s margin.  But the basic logic still stands.  Romney doesn’t have to win the youth vote; he just has to contain youth losses enough so that his huge advantage among older voters puts him ahead.

The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, each with a different collective life story shaped by its own location in history.  Let’s take a look at how each of these stories is likely to determine the outcome.  (Throughout, I will borrow shamelessly from Pew’s wonderful cohort-tracking research and graphics.)

Because this piece turned out to be pretty long, I’m going to break it into two posts.  This post will look at the generations themselves.  The next will look beyond generations to the election outcome.

At the very elder edge of the electorate is the G.I. GENERATION, born between 1901-24. (Sample leaders: John Kennedy, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr.) With its youngest members now age 87 and older, the G.I.s today comprise just 2 percent of likely voters.  Except during the late 1960s and 1970s, this “greatest generation” has always heavily favored the Democrats, having come of age as huge supporters of the “big government” presidency of FDR.  Indeed, in every election from 1994 to 2004, the peers of Jimmy Stewart were more likely than younger Americans to vote Democratic. [See the “Roosevelt” chart on this page from the Pew study.] Even in 2008, according to Gallup, Obama ran almost even with McCain among these overwhelmingly white 80+ voters—better than he did with any other age bracket over 40. Apparently, generation trumps age when it comes to racial bias. Prediction for G.I.s in 2012: slight edge (3 percent) to the Democrats.

Now let’s turn to the “young old.” Dominating the ranks of retirees is the SILENT GENERATION (born 1925-42, today age 69 to 86), comprising 13 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Robert & Ted Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, John McCain.) Coming of age during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidencies, when Americans generally were voting Republican, the young, conformist Silent leaned more Republican than the rest. While the Silent produced nearly all of the most famous civil-rights leaders and “good government” reformers of the post-war era, they have never favored a strong executive (no Silent has ever been elected President) and have tended to return to their GOP roots as they have grown older.  In seven of the last nine elections, they have voted more heavily than other Americans for Republicans. [See the “Truman” and “Eisenhower” charts on this page.]

Since 2008, the Silent’s pro-GOP tendency has widened considerably, along with their unhappiness with the direction of the country. Polls show the Silent are upset not just because they are “angry” at government (they are twice as likely as Millennials to say this), but also because they are “uncomfortable” with positions they associate with younger Obama Democrats on issues such as immigration, marriage, homosexuality, religion, and the Internet. The Silent are the least-immigrant generation (per capita) in American history, and they grew up at a time when the rules of life were clear and simple. Today they are disoriented by the bewildering diversity of today’s younger generations, and they can’t figure out what the new rules are.

Most Silent recognize that are doing well economically compared to younger Americans. But they worry that America is losing its sense of exceptional “greatness” and gaining an addiction to endless public debt—faults they attribute more to Democrats than to Republicans. Many fear the nation is headed back toward the Hard Times they witnessed in their childhood. According to recent Gallup surveys, the Silent favor Romney by 14 percentage points. Prediction for the Silent in 2012: large margin (15 percent) to the Republicans.

Occupying midlife and already surging past age 65 is the BOOM GENERATION (born 1943-60, today age 51 to 68), today comprising 31 percent of likely voters. (Sample leaders: Bill & Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Condoleeza Rice.) Boomers came of age during the social and cultural upheavals that rocked America during the late ‘60s and ‘70s—giving them a fixation on vision and values that defines them even to this day as a generation of individualists and culture warriors (left versus right, “blue” versus “red”). As they grow older, Boomers increasingly call themselves “conservative,” but not necessarily Republican.

First-wave Boomers (today in their 60s) have more years of education than younger Boomers, have done better economically, vote more reliably, gravitate to humanist or mainstream churches, and vote more for Democrats. Last-wave Boomers (today in their 50s) experienced a rapid fall in SAT scores and college attendance, lag far behind first-wavers economically, vote less often, veer toward atheism or “born-again” evangelicalism, and vote more for Republicans. In recent elections, first-wave Boomers have tilted to the Democrats; their younger brothers and sisters have favored the GOP. [See the “Kennedy/Johnson,” “Nixon,” and “Ford/Carter” charts on this page.] In recent months, Gallup shows Boomers favoring Romney by about 5 percentage points. Prediction for the Boomers in 2012: medium edge (5 percent) to the Republicans, with red-leaning last-wavers slightly overpowering blue-leaning first-wavers.

Today’s emerging leaders and the parents of most school-age kids belong to GENERATION X (born 1961-81, today age 30 to 50). Gen Xers now comprise 35 percent of likely voters, a slightly larger share than Boomers.  Gen X’s share should be much larger, but their tendency to vote less often than older generations dilutes the impact of their raw numbers. (Sample leaders: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal.) The left-alone children of the Consciousness Revolution who later came of age during an era that stressed free agency, personal ownership, and survivalism, Gen Xers have mixed feelings about the two parties. Xers like the social and cultural liberalism of Democrats (whatever “works for me” is perfect), but they also like the economic conservatism of the GOP (hey, don’t even think about picking my pocket!).

Like Boomers, they show a strong political trend from oldest to youngest, but it’s in the opposite direction.  First-wave Xers, born in the early 1960s, first voted during the early Reagan years and have thereafter leaned heavily to the GOP. (Just over 70 percent of today’s state governors and members of Congress born from 1961 to 1965 are Republican—the biggest partisan tilt of any five-year cohort group.) Late-wave Xers came of age with Clinton and now lean more toward the Democratic Party. [See the “Reagan/Bush” and “Clinton” charts on this page.] According to recent Gallup polls, Generation X favors Obama by 1 percentage point. Prediction for Gen Xers in 2012: dead even, with GOP-leaning first-wavers exactly neutralizing Democratic-leaning last-wavers.

Finally comes the youngest generation of voters, the adult members of the MILLENNIAL GENERATION (born 1982-93, today age 18 to 29), comprising 18 percent of likely voters. (As yet, they have no national political leaders.) Twenty years ago, they were the special and fussed-over “Friends of Barney.” Today, they’re telling older Americans to share their toys and put a smile on their face. For Millennials, the team comes first: They are more likely than older voters to favor strong communities, urge consensus solutions, trust “big government,” and shrug at paranoia over privacy. With their trademark confidence, Millennials embrace many of the social trends (related to race, ethnicity, religion, homosexuality, and the Internet) that older voters find threatening. Millennials are the least likely to believe such trends undermine patriotism or family cohesion. They are the most likely to be optimistic about America’s long-term future.

This outlook puts Millennials decisively in the Democratic camp, with roughly two-thirds of them (66 to 32 percent) voting for Obama over McCain in 2008 and (according to Gallup) a smaller yet still impressive margin of three-fifths of them favoring Obama over Romney today. [See the “Bush/Obama” chart on this page.] The big question is whether the waning enthusiasm Millennials now show in re-electing Obama—combined with the extra fervor Silent and Boomers show in defeating him—will allow the GOP to prevail.  Nonwhite Millennials are as overwhelmingly pro-Obama in 2012 as they were in 2008 (roughly a 60 percentage point margin).  Yet Democrats should worry about the recent Pew finding that, among white Millennials, the 10 percentage point margin for Obama in 2008 has been fading away and nearly disappearing over the past year.  If young whites split anywhere close to 50-50 in 2012 (remember, non-Latino whites still comprise 60 percent of this generation), then it hardly matters what young minorities do: The GOP will possess an almost insuperable advantage. Prediction for Millennials in 2012: very large margin (20 percent) to the Democrats, led by a 4-to-1 advantage among young minorities.

It’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future. In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, they are still outnumbered by two larger generations of voters (Gen X and Boom), and they may well be outworked by a more energized generation of seniors (the Silent). The young can sometimes lose elections, and lose them badly. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.

Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008. As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young “peacenik” Democrats who once voted for McGovern. That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.

If you do all the arithmetic with the voter shares and margin predictions cited above, you will find that my overall prediction is for a dead-even tie between Obama and Romney.  Meaning: The 2012 winner is going to have to put together a generational scorecard that is, in some combination, better than the figures I have revealed.

How likely is it that Obama or Romney will put together that scorecard?  I look at that in the next post.