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lunes, 28 de noviembre de 2016
The youth vote and the "cool politician"
Before the mid-20th century, young people weren’t exactly a prize demographic, largely because the voting age was 21. In the 1960s, however, young people became involved in politics despite their voting ineligibility. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960, formally integrating black youth activists into the Civil Rights movement. In 1961, both black and white college students traveled by the busload from around the nation to register black voters in the South. In 1964, student activists at UC Berkeley, many of whom were involved in Civil Rights activism, began fighting for free political expression on campus. This so-called Free Speech Movement shaded into the campus Anti-War Movement (led by the group Students for a Democratic Society) as military activity in Vietnam escalated.
“Freedom Riders” arriving in McComb, Mississippi, in December 1961. (AP Photo/Fred Kaufman)
By 1968, America’s young people had emerged as a vocal and powerful cultural and political force. The voting age was still 21, making most active students ineligible, but potential voters in their 20s were suddenly a demographic to be reckoned with, not ignored. The 1968 presidential election therefore saw the first overt attempts to capture the youth vote. In an attempt to appeal to youth of the dawning hippie era, Richard Nixon’s campaign made posters that were described by The New York Times as “quasi-psychedelic”. The groovy art was designed by a company called Jimini Productions. (For context, the musical Hair — with its breakout song “Aquarius” — had just hit Broadway that year.)
Nixon’s campaign went “quasi-psychedelic” in 1968. (Getty)
The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, creating overnight a new demographic numbering 11.5 million. The political establishment quaked in its boots. Youth suffrage threatened to “debase the voting pool,” wrote one concerned oldster; it would lead to “a more ideological politics” warned another, as though politics could ever be non-ideological. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts — home to the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College and Amherst College — erupted in protest. “I don’t mind change, but they want to make a radical change,” said one older resident, in an article from 1971 titled “Amherst City Fears Youth Vote, Sees a Possibility of Students Taking Political Rule.”
But despite the misgivings of the older generation, the youth vote couldn’t be defeated. From now on, it could only be won or lost. Over the next few decades, horror at the youth vote turned into hunger for it; the 18–24 age bracket, it was discovered, might make or break an election, and strategists started paying attention.
In 1985, Maureen Dowd wrote a column asking, “Why are all the politicians watching rock video?” Professional political analysts on both sides of the aisle, she continued, “have begun watching MTV, the 24-hour all-music cable television station that is so popular with American youths.”
“Mr. Atwater says video music has established a new youth culture,” Dowd wrote, referring to Republican political strategist Lee Atwater, who had recently managed the campaign of the infamous racist Senator Strom Thurmond. “When Mr. Atwater watches video music, he often makes voluminous notes.”
In 1990, Virgin Records executive Jeff Ayeroff started an organization called Rock the Vote. The goal: get young people registered. The method: have Madonna say, “If you don’t vote, you’re gonna get a spanking,” on MTV. In addition to splashy celebrity-studded PSAs, the group also integrated technology into youth voter outreach. Rock the Vote set up the nation’s first register-by-telephone system, and later its first online voter registration system.
Democrats, in particular, became more brazen in their attempts to win young hearts and minds. Bill Clinton went on MTV’s Rock the Vote forum in 1992 and answered the question, “Boxers or briefs?” (It was briefs.) “At least he can relate to us,” said a student at the University of Georgia after hearing Al Gore give a speech where he name-dropped R.E.M. album titles like a cool uncle.
The Clinton-Gore ticket brought young voters back to the Democratic party after two decades of disillusionment and, believe it or not, right-wing ballot-casting. By the time Bob Dole visited a fraternity in 1996 to tell stories about pranks played as a frat boy — beginning feebly, “I remember being young once” — the damage to the GOP was done. Nixon’s psychedelic posters aside, the party had missed the boat on effective youth outreach, at least for the foreseeable future.
In 2008 Barack Obama set a new bar for youth appeal in a presidential election. (
But nothing before or since has rivaled the 2008 election that landed Barack Obama in the White House — and the mic-dropping, millennial-pleasing moments that have peppered his presidency. He was the perfect candidate, young, charismatic and personified change. If there was any remaining doubt that youth apathy can be overcome to dramatic effect, Obama killed it.
In some ways, Obama has ruined Hillary Clinton for millennials: he’s set an impossibly high standard of coolness for a 68-year-old who’s been in the public eye for three decades. Where Clinton’s “hot sauce in my bag” gambit might have worked in the pre-Obama era, it strikes today’s young people as phony — especially compared to Obama’s seemingly effortless pop-cultural fluency (and actual relationship with Beyoncé, for that matter).
Young people are savvy to the ways of marketing, they can embrace a brand, but only as long as they can trust it.