• The Democrats’ Generational Dichotomy

  • Firmly in their golden years and entering the twilight of their lives, the oft-muted Silent Generation is making a final and defiant stand to re-define their political legacy. But rather than march together en masse in support of one of the nearly octogenarian candidates of their generation — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — the 74+ crowd is shifting a significant chunk of their allegiance to someone who is literally half their age, support that could otherwise put one of the Silent generation candidates over the edge.

    This generational dichotomy presents a delicious electoral irony. The trio of Bernie, Biden and Bloomberg, two of which are among the four top-tier candidates currently in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, are relying more on folks who they have likely always called “kids” — baby boomers and younger — to side with them in order to make generational history. While South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the favorite of the day in Iowa, has built a consistent base of support among older demographics in the hopes of making his own generational history by becoming the first Millennial president.

    It’s all sad, really, considering Bernie, Biden and Bloomberg represent a generation that has found the presidency an elusive goal to date. Four members of the Silent Generation, those born between 1925 and 1945, carried the banner of their respective political party in presidential general elections — Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and John McCain. But while each won the convention, they also lost the general election. Now it’s up to the three B’s to be the saviors of the cause. But while they sit on the cusp of potentially reversing that trend, two of the three are struggling to get the traction they need among their own cohort and one is getting a lot, but not enough.

    Here’s the data: Bernie, Biden and Bloomberg together account for a large slice of the pie — a combined total of 51.2% of the vote according to the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average. But over 50% of that combined support comes largely from younger voters. Biden, in the most recent CNN/SSRS national poll, pulled 21% of 18-49 year-olds with Bernie getting a whopping 30% of that group (numbers for Bloomberg are still too early to gauge). Contrast that with the 3% of voters over 65 supporting Bernie and the challenge becomes clearer, at least for him.

    Biden is in a different boat. Yes, he is capturing a tad bit more than 40% of the 65+ crowd (which is comprised of both older Boomers and all Silents), but his support is relatively soft compared to traditional front-runners. If he could run up the score with 65+ (71% say they are willing to consider voting for him), that would seal the deal. But a sizable percentage of his generational classmates seem to have other designs in mind.

    Enter Buttigieg, who is riding a rising tide toward the early voting states and earns the largest share of his support from voters over the age of 65 and the least from his own age demographic (voters aged 35-49). And that recent post-debate bump inching him ever closer to one or two early state wins? It is almost entirely built on voters aged 50-64 and 65+.

    So just as Buttigieg needs to amass a racially diverse coalition of voters to succeed in post-Iowa and New Hampshire America, he also needs to patch together a generationally diverse coalition, as do his Silent Generation competitors. But that is where the challenge becomes more difficult for the trio. While Buttigieg could better appeal to the 62% of Gen X’ers, Millennials and Gen Z’ers expected to make up the electorate, there are simply not enough members of the Silent Generation left to carry the day alone. For instance, Silents are projected to account for a paltry 9.5% share of American voters next year, down from the 25% share they had in the 2016 election.

    But why, oh why, can’t the generations stick together and consolidate support behind a single candidate with whom they share a common life experience? That’s simple. Generational commonality ceases to exist when ideological differences come into focus. The old axiom about being liberal in youth and conservative when older is proving to be true. To younger voters, Buttigieg may not seem liberal enough for their liking. And for portions of the older cohort, Bernie, Biden and Bloomberg may be too liberal for them to stomach. Unless and until one of these candidates changes their approach — or drops out — the dichotomy will stay alive.