By Lisa Lerer and Denise Lu
As a young adult, Ronnie Werner protested the war in Vietnam, fought for civil rights and supported a 42-year-old Democrat, Robert F Kennedy, in her first election in 1968. Forty years later, her home served as the local headquarters for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, as she urged her fellow Democrats to embrace new leadership.
That was then. Now, as Democrats grapple with the possibility that President Donald Trump could win four more years in the White House, Werner feels that betting on the next generation is a risk she can’t afford to take.
“We’re in such terrible straits that everything I’ve worked for my entire professional, personal life is about to go down the toilet,” said Werner, 72, as she waited to see former Vice President Joe Biden at a pizza parlor in Hampton. “Young people, I think they are hungry for change and they deserve change, but they don’t know how scary this is.”
The political power of generational change, a constant in Democratic politics and in victorious presidential campaigns for much of the past 60 years, is being hotly debated as the party wrestles with how to defeat Trump.
Age has never defined a race so sharply before. The 23 Democrats include one of the youngest presidential candidates in modern history and the oldest one, spanning four generations — from 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to 77-year-old Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont.
“The age thing is going to be one of the wedges by the time we get to the caucus next year,” said Bryce Smith, the 27-year-old Democratic chairman in Dallas County, a fast-growing suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s that question of experience versus new leadership.”
Interviews with more than three dozen voters, strategists and officials in recent weeks showed Democrats struggling not only with the question of how old, exactly, was too old but also with whether it was time to turn over the country’s most powerful office to a new generation.
Democratic midterm wins ushered in a diverse wave of younger politicians, assisted by record turnout from young voters. Twenty-four Democrats under the age of 40 entered Congress, a fourfold increase from just two years ago. While the three most powerful House Democrats are in their late 70s, the party’s youngest members, like 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, exert tremendous influence over its agenda. Their victories boosted expectations that youth could be an asset in the presidential race.
Yet, at a time of ascendancy for younger Democrats, some worry there may be political peril in nominating a younger politician to challenge the 72-year-old Trump. It’s a notable shift for a party that has traditionally won the White House by embracing the ethos of a new generation in candidates like Obama in 2008, Bill Clinton in 1992 and John F. Kennedy in 1960.
The two men leading most national polls — Sanders and Biden — would be over 80 by the time they finished their first term in office, beating out Trump to become the oldest of any president elected to a first term. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who polls in third place in many surveys, will be 71 on Election Day.
Their age cuts a striking contrast with many of their rivals: Biden won his first statewide race for Senate in 1972, before eight of the Democratic candidates had been born. When Sanders entered Congress in 1990, 10 of his opponents had not yet graduated from college. Both men were the only candidates in federal office during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first invasion of Iraq and the first major generational transition for their party in more than three decades — the election of Clinton in 1992.
“If you think about Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, they really almost represent the very late years of the silent generation,” said Neil Howe, a generational demographer who coined the phrase “millennial generation” in 1991.
Biden has repeatedly said that it is fair to question his age, announcing that he plans to release his medical records before the general election. But Sanders, pointing to his good health, has dismissed questions about his age as less important than those about his positions.
“At the end of the day, it’s not whether you’re young or whether you’re old — it’s what you believe in,” argued Sanders during a Fox News town hall in April.
Meanwhile, younger candidates have made their age a central part of their primary message, arguing they’re better prepared to embrace the new solutions needed to tackle issues like climate change, health care and the changing economy. A survey released by the Pew Research Center this month found that just 3% of Americans say candidates in their 70s are ideal for the office.
“The world has changed so rapidly and we need what comes with a generational shift — new ideas, new approaches, new ways of doing things,” said Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, 45, who describes his age as one of his strongest assets.
Buttigieg has made “intergenerational justice” the central theme of his candidacy, often saying he worries about what the United States will be like in 2054 — the year he will be Trump’s current age.
In an interview, Buttigieg said he references that year to try to encourage Democrats to look beyond defeating the president.
“What’s helpful, I think, with the generational energy that a young candidate can bring, is being able to put a very quick face on the urgency of dealing with things for the future,” he said. “When we’re trying to design that world, substantively, it points you to a place that’s more favorable turf for Democrats.”
Historically, Democratic nominees and presidents have been younger than their Republican counterparts. The two Democratic nominees who have won the White House since 1992 — Clinton and Obama — cast themselves as agents of generational change.
“Political parties are like anything else; they have to refresh themselves,” said James Carville, a chief strategist of Clinton’s 1992 victory. “The country, in 1992 and 2008, had great angst and dissatisfaction with things. I certainly see that now.”
In the early months of the Democratic primary, a fairly significant split has developed between younger and older voters. While Biden leads the Democratic field across demographic groups, polling shows him with a far bigger advantage among voters over age 55. That’s a powerful cohort to have backing his bid: In 2016, voters older than 45 cast 60% of all votes in the 2016 primary, according to an analysis of exit polling.
But the dominance of older voters at the polls may not hold in 2020. This presidential race is likely to be the first election in which voters under 40 make up the same proportion of the electorate as voters over 55 — nearly 40% of the electorate, according to some early projections. Generation Z, Millennials and Generation X outvoted older generations in the 2018 midterms, and early surveys show them on track to turn out in far greater numbers in next year’s primary contests than they did four years ago.
“The generational gap is growing larger,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, which regularly surveys young voters. “Younger people believe they’ve been on the short end of the stick for a generation now.”
Polling shows that younger voters lean more to the left than their parents do, with a majority saying they support programs like government-run health insurance, free college and action to curb climate change. In polling conducted by Harvard University in March, only 16% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they agreed with the statement that “elected officials who are part of the Baby Boomer generation care about people like me.”
They are also more likely to embrace the possibility of a history-making candidate, expressing greater enthusiasm for a female nominee.
“I’m ready for someone who’s not an older white man,” said Meg Thode, 21, a recent college graduate. “The country doesn’t look the same way it did 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
Some younger voters say they question whether the older candidates really understand the increasing diversity of the country and the kinds of economic challenges younger people face.
“It seems like the younger politicians understand the issues that are on our minds more,” said Rachel Felorman, a 19-year-old student in New Hampshire. “Look who’s taking the most action on climate change, on affordable health care and affordable tuition.”
But Della Volpe cautions that age alone is unlikely to determine the millennial and Generation Z vote, pointing to the strong support that Sanders had from young voters during his 2016 primary campaign. Early polling in this race shows Sanders leading among younger voters. Rising generations are rarely represented by presidents their own age, Howe said.
“It’s one thing for the government to reflect that younger generation. It’s a very different thing to say that means that someone from that generation has to be elected,” he said. “An interesting question is, could Bernie Sanders be the great champion for the millennial generation?”