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Lost youth is GOP’s generational gap

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 12:23 p.m. CDT

Who the president is when we first come of voting age — and whether we see that president as successful — 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 the age of 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 President Reagan ran for re-election, nowhere was this voter approval of the then-73-year-old incumbent more dramatic than among the nation’s youngest voters, some more than half a century the Gipper’s junior, who backed him over Democrat Walter Mondale by a 61 to 39 percent margin.

In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush could be said to have been running for “Ronald Reagan’s third term.” 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 50-64 age cohort. 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 between the ages of 18 and 29 by a solid 54 percent to 45 percent.

In 2008, Barack Obama and Joe Biden demolished John McCain and Sarah Palin, 66 to 32 percent. In 2012, the Democratic incumbent won a smashing landslide 60 percent among voters under the age of 30. And voters between the ages of 30 and 39 soundly endorsed Obama over Romney, 55 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 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.

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