One of the most striking facts that emerged from the Iowa caucuses yesterday was the age bias shown by Democratic voters, who were split almost equally by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. We expected that Sanders’ voters would skew younger, but the extent of that skew still bears examination ― and provides interesting food for thought, whether you’re marketing a politician or a more conventional brand.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to Sanders’ age ― if elected, he’d be the oldest President ever sworn in for a first term. To wit, my blog post on this topic is the most-read post on this site. But the reason Hillary Clinton’s campaign has laid off Sanders’ age is obvious: Hillary, at 68 would also be among the very oldest Presidents (and her health is, if anything, more of question than Sanders’.)
That noted, I think it’s pretty fair to say that although they’re only about five years apart in age, Bernie looks older than Hillary. Moreover, judging from Bernie’s consistently disheveled, charming-but-cantankerous-old-fart public persona, his campaign’s decided not to downplay his age.
That’s smart; by letting their candidate’s age show, the campaign’s making it harder for potential rivals to turn it into an issue. And, however improbably, Bernie’s pulled a ‘Betty White’. He’s become one of the rare people who are both unabashedly old and who are seen as cool by Millennials.
But ironically, the older Democratic contender in Iowa has by far the youngest supporters. Today, The Atlantic is reporting an exit poll that suggests Democratic voters under 30 voted 6:1 for Sanders. Even voters aged 30-44 were one and a half times more likely to say they’d voted for Sanders.
Older voters skewed almost as heavily towards Clinton. Senior citizens preferred her by a margin of 3:1.
I’d love to do a deep dive into the ‘why’ of this age divide, but the primary season would be over before I posted it. So, I’ll limit myself to two key observations that should be relevant to any marketer, political or otherwise: Older consumers are not necessarily drawn to someone that seems to be ‘like them’. And younger consumers are not necessarily turned off by someone who is obviously not ‘like them’.
According to Pew Research, age is a powerful predictor of whether a voter identifies as Democratic or Republican. So, it’s ironic that the Democratic Party is fielding two older candidates, while the Republicans’ presumptive candidates are in their mid-40s. Basically, the Dems are going to field a candidate that looks like a typical GOP voter, while the GOP is going to field a candidatewho resembles a Democratic Party voter.
When it come to an actual campaign, will Cruz or Rubio try to make age an issue? (In the unlikely event of a Donald Trump candidacy, the point’s moot; he’d be sworn in at 70.)
Here at re: we think that attacking a candidate’s age is dangerous. Sure the Clinton campaign could draw attention to Bernie’s age in the primaries; and the Republicans could portray either Democrat as over the hill in a general election.
But both Hillary (in the primaries) and the Republicans (in the general election) are obviously counting on older voters. So neither Hillary nor the Republicans can afford to make old people think, “Wait a minute, are you saying there’s something wrong with old people?”
Do you want to know why, in the nasty runup to the first Republican primaries, no rival has dared criticized Chris Christie’s physique? Because most Americans are overweight and about a third of the country’s obese. Mobilizing all those fat people to vote for Christie out of sympathy and shared sense of outrage would turn him from also-ran to contender overnight.
As I’ve noted in the past, the probability that an eligible voter will actually cast a ballot increases with age. The most committed voters are Boomers and senior citizens who are all old enough to view Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio as upstarts and punks. That’s especially true of voters who lean Republican.
Pew Research refers to those pre-Boomer senior citizens as ‘The Silent Generation’. As Bernie Sanders has so ably shown though... when you get those old people riled up they can make a lot of noise.
Calling anyone too old might piss 'em all off.