Polling the Age of Hope

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So much ink is spilled interpreting the race and sex dynamics of the Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton often wins women, Barack Obama inevitably wins blacks. Identity politics lives on. But my former boss, Salon.com’s Walter Shapiro, points to another demographic trend that came into striking relief in the Ohio exit polls: The age gap.

The age breaks were lock-step precise with Clinton rising and Obama falling as each of the six age cohorts became progressively older. Obama won the youngest voters (those 17-24) by a landslide margin of 75-to-24 percent. Clinton, on the other hand, racked up an almost equally lopsided 70-to-29 victory among voters eligible for Social Security. In summary, the 46-year-old Obama carried voters younger than he is (those 17 to 45), while Clinton won those who are older.

There are lots of factors dividing the young and the old in America, but I wonder if these numbers say less about the 14-year age difference between Obama and Clinton, who is 60, than the different appeals of their brands. “Hope” is, after all, nearly a synonym for youth, while “experience” is the reward of old age.

Take this line of thinking to the extreme, and I am left with this caricature of the Democratic electorate: Those older than Obama see him as a naive kid, while those younger see him as a manifestation of their own ambitions and optimism. On the flip side, younger voters see Clinton as a chiding parent, while older voters see her as a wise woman. These are just rough outlines, and they may be way off. But it does seem increasingly clear that we are witnessing another generational struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Another thought: If Obama wins the nomination, this generational dynamic is sure to move to the general election against 71-year-old John McCain. If Clinton wins, not as much.

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