Where Were the Women?
This blurring of differences on Democratic issues also had an important impact on older voters, who, along with women, were a key target identified by Republican strategists. Despite running a national campaign almost exclusively on a commitment to seniors' issues, Democrats lost senior citizens by five points. This margin represents an improvement over 1998, when the Democrats lost seniors by ten points, but a significant drop from 2000, when Democrats won seniors by four points. Of course, drug benefits and Social Security were far from the only issues in the election; the war on terrorism and national security concerns contributed to this Democratic weakness, especially among older men.
Ironically, the Democrats performed most strongly among voters under 30. Democrats won twentysomething voters by three points despite claims by Karl Rove that Republican support is growing among younger voters. The Democrats improved their margin in spite of the fact that they had almost nothing to say to younger voters, who are generally more concerned about education and job security than the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. The Democrats also improved their standing in spite of the fact that younger voters generally support some form of privatization (opposition to privatization has been a central rallying cry for the Democrats this year). In a survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (POS) and GQR for National Public Radio in the spring, 71 percent of voters under 34 supported investing some of their Social Security contribution in the stock market, compared with just 47 percent of baby boomers and 30 percent of senior citizens.
The Democratic success with younger voters lies, in part, in the greater racial diversity of younger voters. Thirty percent of such voters identify themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian or as belonging to some other group, compared with only 12 percent of senior citizens. People who identify themselves with these minority and ethnic groups generally tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. Among white voters, on the other hand, Democrats do equally badly with younger and older voters, losing them by fifteen and eleven points, respectively.
But just as important, younger voters worry about where the Bush Administration is taking the country, and they perceive real differences between the parties on the issues they care about. When asked what two issues would inform their vote for Congress in an October NPR/POS/GQR survey, nearly half said education, an issue on which the Democrats actually have a ten-point advantage among younger voters. In GQR postelection research, when young voters were asked why they opted for the Democratic candidate in this election, their top three reasons were to stop Bush and the Republicans from "going too far," to protect the environment and to oppose GOP tax cuts for the wealthy. These same voters gave the Democrats a twenty-nine-point advantage over the Republicans on handling energy and the environment.
The fact that younger voters moved in a more Democratic direction is instructive. Younger voters saw real differences between the parties on the issues they cared about, like the environment and education. In contrast, most other voters saw the parties as indistinguishable on taking care of our economic woes and perceived fewer differences than in the past on important domestic policy matters like education and prescription drugs. In the context of a larger advantage for the Republicans on handling issues of national security and terrorism in a time of great anxiety, is it any wonder that the Republicans made inroads among key swing groups for the Democrats? Perhaps if women and seniors had seen clear differences between the parties on the issues they cared about, they would have stuck with the Democrats.