Who the president is when we first come of voting age — and whether we see that president as a successful leader — strongly influences our future voting allegiances.
Take the case of Ronald Reagan, who when he first won the White House in 1980 by defeating President Jimmy Carter and third-party candidate Rep. John Anderson was at age 69 the oldest president ever elected. That year, Reagan and Carter split the 18-to-29-year-old vote, with Anderson, the maverick, taking 11 percent.
Four years later in 1984, when Reagan, the sunny optimist, ran for re-election, Americans overwhelmingly believed they were better off than they had been four years earlier. Nowhere was this voter approval of the then-73-year-old incumbent more dramatic than among the nation’s youngest voters, some more than a half-century the Gipper’s junior, who backed him over Democrat Walter Mondale by 61 percent to 39 percent.
In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush could be said to have been running for “Ronald Reagan’s third term.” Older voters who had been Reagan’s strongest supporters in both 1980 and 1984 almost evenly divided between Bush and the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Bush in winning ran significantly stronger among the presumably more liberal, youngest voters than he did among the measurably more conservative seniors.
Fast-forward to 2012, and those formerly young Reagan voters are now almost all found in the 50-to-64 age cohort. Let it be noted that, while Barack Obama did become the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower, some six decades before, to twice win a majority of the popular vote, Republican Mitt Romney carried 50-to-64-year-old voters by 52 percent to 47 percent. Early voting habits die hard.
But that was then, and this is now. The last three elections have been among young voters for the Republicans an unrelieved disaster. Even though Democrat John Kerry lost the 2004 contest to President George W. Bush, Kerry won young voters ages 18 to 29 by a solid 54 percent to 45 percent.
The U.S. economy was certainly not booming in 2012, and too many young Americans have been struggling to jump-start their careers, but the Democratic incumbent still won a smashing landslide 60 percent among voters under the age of 30. And continuing their learned Democratic loyalties or habit, voters ages 30 to 39 soundly endorsed Obama over Romney by 55 percent to 42 percent.
We all know that Republican nominees, of late, have run weakly among the growing number — now totaling 26 percent of the electorate — of Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters. In fact, in 2012, the Romney-Ryan team won less than 13 percent of this constituency. Since the election, many Republicans seem to grasp that they must support immigration reform as a first step, before they have a chance of once again becoming competitive among Hispanic and Asian voters.
But the Grand Old Party’s “Lost Youth” voters cannot be addressed by any federal legislation. Unsmiling Republicans are too often seen to be on search-and-destroy missions, looking for heretics rather than seeking converts. Democrats are now younger, and Republicans are aging.
It remains true in 2013 that the typical Democrat is probably moving from her own room to her own apartment and one day hoping to have a home of her own, while the typical Republican is moving from his own home to the retirement home, on his way to the nursing home or the funeral home.
The GOP must do something soon to bridge that dangerous generational divide.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.