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Young vs Old: Will Republicans Turn Class Warfare into Generational Warfare in the 2012 Election?

The toxic but illogical politics of pitting young against old has been on display all over the media.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Aaron Amat


Does Mitt Romney have a prayer with young voters? As the media help him shake his Etch-A-Sketch and reposition himself for the general election, along comes a poll Republicans claim shows danger for President Obama and opportunity for Romney in one of the White House’s prized electoral targets, the youth vote.

A new survey by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows that voters 18-24 are less engaged in this election than that age group was in 2008, with only 64 percent registered to vote, as opposed to 73 percent four years ago. Where two-thirds said they’d definitely vote in 2008, less than half say that today. “The president’s support among young voters is bleeding away,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon claimed in the Daily Beast, using IOP data. When McKinnon hyped his piece Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Republican Joe Scarborough intoned that “the bull’s-eye is really on the back of the young voters,” who know that the “burden” of Social Security, Medicare and “the $17 trillion debt will fall on them.”

As a matter of fact, the Institute of Politics youth-vote study actually contained mostly good news for Democrats. (This is typical in the media, in which “Bad news for Dems” stories can be found everywhere, even in data that aren’t bad news for Dems.) “Over the last several months, we have seen more of the Millennial vote begin to solidify around President Obama and Democrats in Congress,” Harvard Institute of Politics director Trey Grayson observed in the press release announcing the survey results. In fact, Obama’s lead over Romney increased to a 17-point margin, up from an 11-point lead in an IOP poll last November. It’s true that young-voter enthusiasm is down somewhat, and Obama doesn’t enjoy the 2-1 lead he built over Sen. John McCain in 2008 – but there’s still time.

Of course, Republicans will insist that’s time for them to make a move on the youth vote. On the campaign trail, Romney himself has taken to insisting “young people are questioning the support they gave to President Obama three and a half years ago.” On Tuesday he’s visiting Lansing Community College in Michigan to make his pitch. In a recent speech he said:

When you look at fifty percent of the kids coming out of college today can’t find a job or can’t find a job which is consistent with their skills, how in the world can you be supporting a president that’s led to that kind of an economy? […] He promised a future with good jobs and good opportunity; that hasn’t happened. And the pathway that he pursued is one which has not worked. Young people recognize that and I think that’s why they’re going to increasingly look for a different approach.

Joe Scarborough isn’t the first conservative to suggest generational warfare might trump class warfare as an electoral strategy for the GOP in 2012: Last year New York Times columnist  Ross Douthat suggested “entitlement” reform is particularly crucial because the future “brown and beige” youth majority won’t be happy paying to support Social Security and Medicare for mostly white seniors. (To his credit, Scarborough didn’t throw in the additional dramatic distraction of race.)

The toxic but illogical politics of pitting young against old was on dizzying display in Esquire’s deeply messed up “ The War Against Youth” feature last month, which argued that the last 30 years have witnessed a massive income transfer from young to old, courtesy of greedy baby boomers and both parties.  ”The old are eating the young at the dinner table,” author Stephen Marche memorably wrote. Ick. His piece started out with an economic blooper so egregious that the rest of its reporting is suspect – confusing “wealth” with “income” when comparing young vs. old, then and now. But some of the points he made were valid.  We are spending far more on seniors than we are on young people – and it’s going to get worse as the boomers age.

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