Youth vote has been quirk, not constant in elections
New Orleans — AS the first member of the baby boom to appear on a national ticket, Sen. Dan Quayle has set Republicans talking hopefully of a special appeal to the youth vote. But there is no youth vote, according to people who study voting patterns.
That is, youth votes more or less the same as age. Even those differences that occasionally arise between age groups - the greater liberalism of voters who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the swing back to conservatism of new voters in the Reagan years - show signs of fading away.
Still Republican strategists are touting generational appeal for Senator Quayle. Says Bush campaign consultant Charles Black: ``He has a natural strength with younger voters because he is one of them.''
Quayle did show some extra appeal to voters in their early thirties or younger in his last 1986 election in Indiana, says Indiana University pollster Brian Vargus. But the edge was slight and the contest unusual because his opponent was so weak and underfunded, he says.
``He didn't do anything terribly significant there,'' says Dr. Vargus about Quayle's youth support.
The glut of Americans born in the 20 years after World War II offers an irresistable target in politics. Now roughly 25 to 44 years old, the 79 million baby boomers make up some 44 percent of the electorate this year.
But age does little to tie them together. There are very few issues of national politics that are especially related to the young,'' says Warren Miller, a voting-behavior expert at Arizona State University. ``And there is certainly not a unique appeal to Dan Quayle because he's a fellow baby boomer.''
Quayle is only the most recent candidate that handlers hoped would tap this group. Bush campaign director Lee Atwater has been expounding the potential of a generational pitch to young voters for years. So has Patrick Caddell, the Democratic strategist that advised Sen. Joseph Biden's unsuccessful presidential campaign last year.
Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan, the oldest American president, that most captured young voters during the 1980s and drew many into the Republican fold. But then, notes Ray Wolfinger, voting analyst at the University of California at Berkeley, voters of all ages were drawn to President Reagan.
The youngest voters, lacking voting habits, were simply shifting with the tide of the times against less resistance, says Dr. Wolfinger.
That shift may be over - unless the Bush camp is right and the George Bush-Dan Quayle ticket can re-start it. Republican pollster Lance Tarrance reported this week that Republicans appeared to be losing their advantage among voters under 30.
The icon of generational politics is John F. Kennedy, the country's youngest president. But if Kennedy's youth and vitality were appealing to voters, they held no special appeal to young voters.
Dr. Miller says that Kennedy created new Democrats across all age groups. His only especially strong draw was among voters that came of age during the New Deal years of the 1930s.
Some generations do take on a distinctive character from the era when they reach adulthood. The New Deal generation, formed by the Depression and the Roosevelt response, became a politically distinct group. The first half of the baby boomers reached maturity under the shadow of Vietnam and later Watergate. The group became somewhat less politically active, more liberal - especially on cultural issues - and more Democratic than its older siblings and parents.
Mr. Atwater still sees a disproportionate share of swing voters there, voters inclined to switch from one party to the other.
This classic baby boom group is now in its middle 30s to early 40s. It has grown more conservative and active until it nearly matches other age groups.
Age, just as politicians are keying to it more prominently, may be losing whatever distinction it once had. For political potency, age has never compared to other groupings such as race, religion, education levels, or trade unionism, says opinion analyst Richard Scammon. ``I wouldn't say that age is unimportant, but it's way down the list.''
Generations and the GOP Self-identified Republicans are highest among young voters, but pattern is uneven In percentages
Age Democrat Republican Independent 70+ 43% 32% 25% 60-69 42 26 32 55-59 36 28 36 50-54 34 31 35 45-49 33 33 33 40-44 37 25 38 35-39 36 26 38 30-34 35 32 33 25-29 31 34 35 18-24 33 37 30 Little generational voting was evident in 1984 Age group Reagan/Bush Mondale/Ferraro 18-24 59% 41% 25-34 56% 44% 35-49 61% 39% 50-64 60% 40% 65+ 61% 39%
SOURCE: AMERICANS TALK SECURITY, FEB.-JUNE 1988; NBC NEWS EXIT POLL