Magazine article The American Prospect

Papa, Don't Preach

Magazine article The American Prospect

Papa, Don't Preach

Article excerpt

How Moralists Lost the Youth Vote

According to the Voter News Service numbers, Al Gore beat George W. Bush among 18- to 29-year-old voters by a mere 2 percentage points (48 to 46), a gigantic drop in this age group from Bill Clinton s 19-point margin over Bob Dole in 1996 (53 to 34) and 11-point margin over George Bush the elder in 1992 (45 to 34).

When the numbers are broken down in more detail, it is likely that Gore will emerge as having done even worse among the youngest voters. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Ralph Nader got the bulk of his support from college students, on some campuses polling more than 20 percent. Overall turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old group was 17 percent of eligible voters--approximately the same as the worst-ever 1996 rate and a drop of more than 20 percent from 1992, when Clinton's first run for the presidency energized young people.

Why was it that while other parts of the Democratic base such as African Americans and labor union members turned out and supported Gore at a very high level, younger voters were so dramatically turned off by him and ended up costing him the election?

One reason was clearly Gore's chosen running mate, Joseph Lieberman, whose public persona had three distinguishing characteristics: his opportunistic criticism of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his persistent and strident attacks on entertainment popular among young people, and his repeated references to his religious beliefs and to the idea that organized religion produces morally superior citizens.

The selection of Lieberman reinforced Gore's tendency to act superior to the great unwashed public--an air exemplified by his public speaking style, which was often likened to that of a schoolteacher of very young children.

The alienation of young people apparently was not an accident but the result of a Gore-Lieberman miscalculation that youth culture and its concerns could be their "Sister Souljah" to reassure older swing voters. Thus Gore attacked popular entertainment in his widely watched convention speech, as well as in the first debate, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in numerous other sound bites.

According to Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote (which registered more than 500,000 18- to 21-year-old voters in 2000), "From June until the end of September, [Rock the Vote] did hundreds of events at colleges and other locations. The Bush and the Nader campaigns always sent us a surrogate or literature for a table. The Gore campaign completely blew us off until the last few weeks before the election. It was clear," adds Velasquez, "that young people were not part of their strategy until the very end, when they realized that thousands of college students were voting for Nader. By then it was too late"

Stan Greenberg, a key adviser to Gore and Lieberman, laid out a rationale for a candidate like Lieberman last summer in The American Prospect [Stanley and Anna Greenberg, "Adding Values," August 28, 2000]: Following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "Democrats again were identified with 1960s-style irresponsibility" Voters want political leaders who put the family at the center of political discussion and are drawn to Democrats who respect the public's religious faith. In fairness to Greenberg, I will say that he recommended a nuanced Democratic engagement with "values" issues and correctly predicted that voters did "not want to politicize values or religious belief." Lieberman, however, made religiosity such a major part of his identity that even the Anti-Defamation League criticized him for it.

Meanwhile, the snobbish and insulated Washington punditocracy (who also had consistently underestimated Bill Clinton's appeal to a majority of Americans) bought into the Republican spin that the "issue" regarding popular culture was whether or not Gore and Clinton were hypocrites for accepting campaign contributions from Hollywood executives. …

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