John McCain is, by his own admission, computer illiterate. Those boxes of motherboards, microprocessors, sound cards, video cards, disc drives and hard drives baffle him. E-mail? Barely a clue. Facebook? Don’t even bother. Nevertheless, with just over two months until Election Day, McCain, technological deficiencies and all, is eyeing the votes of the estimated 50 million Twittering, text messaging, iPod-toting young voters in this country. In doing so, McCain’s “straight talking” campaign faces a daunting challenge: selling the senior senator from Arizona, a man born before the advent of cable television, VCRs and cell phones, to a technologically dependent generation with whom he has practically nothing in common.
It’s an almost universally accepted fact that John McCain, who would be the oldest first-term President in US history, will not win a majority of the youth vote. Barack Obama has enjoyed impressive support from young people since entering the race, and the chances of those throngs of voters inexplicably switching their allegiance are about as good as McCain creating his own Second Life avatar. Numerous polls and surveys show Obama ahead by at least twenty percentage points or more among young voters, a lead the McCain campaign cannot expect to overcome by November.
On the other hand, they don’t have to. McCain simply needs to chip away enough at Obama’s lead among the young–or simply discourage young first-time voters from making a trip to the polls–to make a potentially close election more winnable. However, for Republicans another fear lurks beyond the loss of young Americans this November. As any advertiser knows, if you brand successfully among the young, you create potential customers for life. In politics, the same concept has historically proven to be true. If the GOP fails to bring a new generation into their ranks this election season, they may continue to lose the votes of that generation for years, even decades, to come, dooming the Republican Party to minority status well into the future.
Worse yet, for the McCain campaign and Republican Party veterans, the numbers do not look promising this year. Since forming his presidential exploratory committee in November 2006, the senator has consistently trailed his competitors–both Republican and Democratic–in youth support. Throughout the primaries, youth polls and surveys consistently showed McCain’s support lagging behind that of his competitors. Since clinching the nomination in early March, it’s only gotten worse. After all, he now faces a candidate who really excites young Americans, Barack Obama.