Democratic Primaries: A Battle among Generations

The Iowa caucus has shown that the US presidential elections have not yet been decided. Ted Cruz beat Trump and Rubio by a few points, though Trump is still up nationally. I still have very few doubts that anybody but Trump will win the Republican nomination. There is significantly more uncertainty among Democrats. Bernie Sanders carries half the vote, while Clinton carries the other half. More interesting, though, is to analyze precisely the voter profile on either side coming out of the Iowa caucus.

One look at the demographic breakdown clearly shows that Sanders is doing rather well among white, educated liberals, among men and among young people (figures reported in Brownstein 2016). He still struggles to make headway among minorities, Democratic party members and older voters. In a state like Iowa, where there are few minorities and many educated liberals, he is certainly as competitive as Clinton. There is also very little doubt that he will do very well in New Hampshire, which has a similar demographic profile as in neighboring Vermont, which Sanders has represented in Congress for the last 26 years.

Sanders’ poll numbers in other states are not so bright. Besides New Hampshire and Vermont, only Alaska solidly feels the Bern, while in Nevada, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Ohio and Maine, he has started to become more competitive. In many of the other states surveyed, Clinton still retains a substantial lead in the polls (see Wikipedia). On the other hand, I would not underestimate the Iowa effect. Even though, not all candidates who won Iowa ended up winning the nomination (Bill Clinton lost Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992), doing well in Iowa increases Sanders’ exposure to the voters in other states. By now it should be increasingly becoming clear that Sanders no longer is a fluke, and that the name recognition problem, which held him back for so long, is getting smaller.

But, nonetheless, I want to focus on two issues that the Sanders campaign has to overcome if they want to lock down the Democratic nomination (especially given that the superdelegates and the entire party establishment have endorsed Clinton). Sanders has to do much better among minorities and old people.

It is fairly obvious that many of the southern states have more black voters (as much as 55% in South Carolina), and Sanders needs more of their votes. He has gotten the prominent backing of public celebrities like Cornel West and Killermike, but how much influence do they really have on inciting the Bern in the black community? Regarding policy, there is no doubt that blacks and Latinos would both significantly benefit more from President Sanders than President Clinton. Sanders wants criminal justice reform, which basically means decriminalizing some drugs and reducing the likelihood of minorities to be put to prison. He supports comprehensive immigration reform, which basically means that all illegal immigrants residing currently in the US should get citizenship. He has a very energetic jobs agenda, and free tuition and universal health care disproportionately benefit poor people, including minorities. Clinton, however, trumpets the status quo, and still gets significant minority support.

Why is that? Sanders himself claims repeatedly that minorities simply don’t know much about his agenda, and I find this to be the most credible answer. It was easy to make the case to African Americans that they should support Barack Obama, who after all became the first black president in US history. But why should they support a white Jewish socialist, who comes from a white state? Never mind his civil rights record or his progressive political agenda. People just don’t know much about him. In addition, blacks have a strange loyalty to the Clinton’s, who backed Bill when he was presenting himself as the “first black president of the US” (even though his crackdown on crime campaign and welfare cuts disproportionately hurt the black community). But Sanders’ poll numbers are clearly improving in minority communities, as they hear his message. One can only hope that he can reach out to enough voters before the game is over.

More stunning in the Iowa caucus voter profile was the finding that Sanders defeated Clinton by a whopping 84 to 14% margin among the below 30, and 58 to 37% in the 30-44 age category, while he was defeated 58 to 35% among 45-64 and 69 to 26% among seniors above age 65. These statistics matter insofar as 61% of the voters are above age 45, and only 39% are below age 45. Everyone knows that senior citizens decide elections, because as the Baby Boomers are retiring, there are more of them, and seniors have the highest voting participation rate of any age group.

The youth are overwhelmingly feeling the Bern (including this author), and they are showing up in large numbers to the Sanders rallies, while only a few middle aged and old people show up in Clinton rallies. The media reports the masses of Sanders supporters in his rallies, but in the elections they don’t mean much, because the youth tend to vote in fewer numbers and there are fewer of them than older people. The youth, who are showing up in the Sanders rallies, are naturally showing up to vote, but it is questionable whether they can convince all of their less political friends and age peers to join politics. As a fairly political observer since I was a teenager, I have long noted the political apathy, which most young people around me had. That picture persisted well into my college days. Now I find more people around me being interested in politics, but that is a selection bias, because college students tend to be more politicized than the general youth. Unless the youth voter turnout can be massively increased, Sanders will have a difficult time to win the nomination.

The other strategy for Sanders would be to increasingly court the vote of senior citizens. That proposition is made difficult by the fact that old voters don’t embrace change, and are more likely to support the establishment figure. The other problem is that a greater social media strategy won’t work despite the much more powerful Facebook presence of Sanders, because old people are less likely to use social media than younger people. Ironically, the physical age of the candidate also does not have much of an effect on the voting behavior of seniors, because Sanders is even a few years older than Clinton. What matters are the political positions.

Seniors crave political continuity, and Clinton clearly represents this. She has said repeatedly how she wanted to build on Barack Obama’s political legacy. She does not want to challenge Obamacare (i.e. no support for single payer health care). She does not want to have a massive jobs program. She does not want to raise the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. She does not want free college tuition. She wants to focus her efforts on carrying out a more aggressive foreign policy (though I doubt that she will want to trigger foolish wars like Bush). What is the benefit to seniors? She has not indicated any cuts to Medicare and Social Security, which are the major social programs that bolster old people. The fact that there is no good health care system for their children and grandchildren, or that there is no robust unemployment insurance programs for the younger generation does not seem to bother them too much.

There is another even more worrisome consideration for Sanders to attract the senior vote: because the Baby Boomers are better off economically than the younger generations, they tend to be more politically conservative. The Baby Boomer generation that is moving into retirement has entered the labor force during a time when the labor market was buoyant, the jobs were good-paying and opportunities for career advancement were plentiful (roughly 1960s to mid-1970s). As a result, they have been able to buy houses and have their mortgages paid off. They attended college during a time when state and federal governments still believed that most people should benefit from low-cost college, or benefit from it via the GI bill, as most men had served in the military during World War II. So they have no student debt to cripple them for a lifetime. When they retired, they still benefited from the legacy of company pensions, which are defined-benefit (i.e. they get a fixed amount of money every month). These are the kinds of cushy pensions that young workers today have never even heard of.

With all these benefits in place, it might explain why some older voters are very skeptical about the misfortune of their children and grandchildren. They don’t understand how the younger generation is graduating deeply in debt, while entering a labor market, where only few positions allow a continued middle class lifestyle. Corporations have been downsizing everywhere since the 1980s, and it is increasingly difficult to climb the company ladder anywhere. This is what Sanders has been speaking to in all of his stump speeches, and young voters get it and want change.

I am not arguing that all is rosy for the old-age generation today. Many Baby Boomers had decided to retire around 2008, when the major Wall Street crash burned their pension funds, and forced them to return or stay in the labor market for longer than they had hoped for.

But the overall narrative is that to the extent that Baby Boomers have on average a better income and wealth position than their younger peers, they have much more reason to become more conservative in their views, and support establishment figures like Clinton. In fact, the political dynamic of a growing and fearful senior generation might produce even more reactionary politics. As the Wall Street managers are greedily looking forward to smash Social Security by privatizing it, senior citizens will throw their support behind potentially fascist candidates like Donald Trump. or at least they will back Clinton over Sanders, even though only the latter promotes a substantial expansion in Social Security benefits.

What seniors, of course, don’t understand sufficiently is that the conservative “hold on to what we have” mentality is not going to cut it. Sanders correctly pointed out that what we have going on is not intergenerational warfare, where the old are supposedly greedily absorbing more of the economic wealth of the country, but class warfare. More and more wealth is concentrated into the hands of ever few people, who then come to dominate the political process either in the form of having billionaire candidates (like Trump and possibly Bloomberg) or billionaire-financed candidates (like Clinton and every other Republican candidate except Trump) run for public office. By voting in more of those same-old establishment figures, seniors are enabling the very policy success of the nation’s oligarchs, who will not rest content with merely squeezing young people, but are also turning against the “liability” of old people.

The intellectual old people (think of college professors) might understand my argument, and I am sure that Sanders is polling better among that group than the less educated seniors. But it will prove very difficult to effect real political change if most seniors hold on to their establishment figures. Antonio Gramsci wrote in his prison notebooks, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

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