Government: THE CAMPAIGN: ELECTION '96
BOB'S DOLEFUL DEMOGRAPHICS
He's not winning over the young--or his own generation
Mildred Timinelli, a 94-year-old lifelong Republican, listened attentively on Sept. 26 as GOP nominee Bob Dole assured residents of the Fountainview retirement community in West Palm Beach, Fla., that he wouldn't destroy their cherished Medicare. But even a personal appeal couldn't convince Timinelli that Dole understands the problems of elderly voters. "To tell you the truth, I thought he was kind of a grouch," she says. Timinelli plans to vote for President Clinton because she fears Dole might slash her health program: "It was in all the papers that he was going to cut back on it."
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Kelly Mitchell, a 26-year-old administrative assistant, thinks Dole has trouble understanding the problems of a very different group of voters--young adults. "I don't think Dole realizes how tough it is on people our age--working and trying to raise a family," says Mitchell. In 1992, she voted for President Bush. She switched parties in 1993, and this time she'll vote for Clinton. A major factor is Dole's age: 73. "I wouldn't vote for my grandpa," Mitchell asserts.
As if he doesn't have enough problems, Bob Dole finds himself caught in a generational squeeze play unprecedented in modern Presidential politics: He's faring worst with the oldest and youngest slices of the electorate. According to a Sept. 5-8 survey of 1,141 registered voters by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Clinton leads Dole 53% to 34% among voters 65 and over, and 57% to 29% among those under 30. Yet Clinton's lead is only 46% to 38% among voters 50 to 64. While the elderly have favored Democrats for decades, Clinton's overwhelming support among the young marks a big shift for a group that has leaned Republican since Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign.
The result is an Electoral College nightmare for Dole. The Kansan is trailing in both Arizona and Florida, historically Republican states that are home to many GOP-leaning retirees. Indeed, the last Democrat to win Arizona was President Harry Truman in 1948. And no Republican has won the White House without carrying Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
NEGATIVE CHARISMA. Dole's unpopularity with voters of his own generation is more worrisome than his negative charisma with the young because older voters turn out in disproportionately large numbers. That spells trouble for Dole not just in the Sunbelt but also in northern industrial states with big concentrations of seniors, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio.
It's not that Dole isn't trying to woo the silver-haired set. He has proposed a steep cut in the capital-gains tax and wants to repeal a 1993 Clinton initiative that raised Social Security taxes for the most affluent seniors. And Dole is viewed fondly by many retirees, who respect his war record and his 34 years of service in Congress. Just ask Isobel "Lynn" Park, 82, a West Palm Beach retiree who lauds Dole as a man of character. As for Clinton, she says, "He is a liar. He is a coward. And he is totally unpresidential in my book."
But, unfortunately for Dole, the dominant concern of the elderly this campaign is protection of Social Security and Medicare. In his West Palm Beach appearance, Dole conceded that Democrats have convinced many older voters that the GOP Congress' attempts to slow the growth of Medicare were actually deep reductions in promised benefits. To drive the wedge deeper, the Clinton campaign is reminding voters of Dole's 1995 comment that he was proud to have voted against the creation of Medicare in 1965.
But Medicare isn't Dole's only problem with older voters. About a third tell pollsters they fear Dole couldn't handle the rigors of the Presidency. "He's too old," says Kenneth DeMaina, a 76-year-old Republican from Sun City, Ariz., who favors Clinton. "A person like that can get sick just like that."
Twentysomething voters who were enthralled by Ronald Reagan's cowboy charm are put off by Dole's image as a dour, old-fashioned pol. "There's a generation gap that Dole just can't overcome," says Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier. "All this talk about World War II might as well be the Hundred Years War." This disconnect is typified by a recent slip in which Dole called the Los Angeles Dodgers the Brooklyn Dodgers--a location the baseball team abandoned in 1957.
Among Dole's substantive problems with young voters: his opposition to the Family & Medical Leave Act, his inability to articulate his vision of the high-tech global economy of the 21st century, his anti-abortion stance, and his social conservatism, which runs counter to the libertarianism of the under-30 set. "Dole has done a very poor job of defining what he's all about," says 28-year-old John Corbin of Mesa, Ariz., a Republican who will vote for Clinton. "I thought Dole was moderate. But he's kind of committed suicide by associating with the extremists of the party-- the anti-environmentalists and so on."
Such talk reflects a dramatic turnabout. In the 1984 and 1988 elections, voters under age 30 were the most reliable Republican bloc, favoring President Reagan over Walter Mondale 57% to 42%, and opting for George Bush over Michael Dukakis 54% to 44%.
The problem is underscored for Dole strategists because young voters show far more support for GOP congressional candidates. Still, aides argue young voters are a volatile, independent-minded bloc that will be attracted to the GOP nominee after watching him pummel Clinton in the Presidential debates. They note that young voters swung back to Dole briefly after the centrist Republican convention in mid-August. And they believe many young, financially strapped voters will be attracted to Dole's promises of a 15% income tax cut, tax credits for families with children, and education vouchers to let parents send kids to private schools.
In the end, the Dole camp hopes to win the oldsters and the youngsters--misgivings and all--by convincing them that they'd be worse off under Clinton. They'll be "less prosperous, less safe, and a little less proud with Bill Clinton," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. That's a tough sell at a time of declining crime rates and a rising economy. And that's why Dole can't seem to escape the tightening demographic vise.By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with Jessica McCann in Phoenix and Elizabeth Roberts in West Palm Beach, Fla.Return to top