Where are the young Democrats?

From Cruz to Paul, GOP is loaded with national figures under 50. Dems seemingly have no one to rival them in 2020

Topics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2016 Elections, Democratic Party, 2014 elections, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Democrats, Republicans, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Editor's Picks, ,

Where are the young Democrats?President Barack Obama, Governor Martin O'Malley (Credit: Reuters/Jim Young)

With Hillary Clinton the runaway favorite as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee (should she run), Republicans are already making clear that they will focus attention on her age, reports Jonathan Martin of the New York Times. Clinton will be nearly 70 if she runs in three years, “a generation removed from most of the possible Republican candidates.” As Mike Tomasky and Alec MacGillis wrote Monday, the attacks could backfire — and Karl Rove’s notion that the GOP will capture a large portion of the youth vote because of Clinton’s age is laughable.

But the attack does reveal a key weakness in today’s Democratic Party that could haunt it for the next decade or more — it has a relatively barren farm system of young up-and-comers. The party could easily survive 2016 with Clinton at the top of the ticket, but what about subsequent cycles?

Since 2008, the GOP has recruited a long roster of relatively youthful potential presidential nominees (both for 2016 and beyond), while Democratic hopes rest in the family that already controlled the White House once after rising to prominence 20 years ago. The current leaders of the party have served it well, but no one seems to be planning for who comes next.

Say what you want about it, but today’s Republican Party is led by slew of 40-somethings. There’s Marco Rubio (42), Paul Ryan (43), Chris Christie (50) and Rand Paul (50). There’s also Ted Cruz (42), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (41), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (42), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (45). These leaders are likely to be around far beyond the next presidential cycle. The only Republican who gets much attention regarding 2016 and is on the older side is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who just turned 60 in February.

What about Democrats? Clinton is currently 65, then there’s Joe Biden (70). Beyond them, two politicians most commonly mentioned in connection to the presidency are New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (55) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (50). Both could be compelling options to liberals – yet neither is as young as most of the GOP options.

After that, Democratic national leaders are more unclear. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is mentioned often — he’s 57. The party has perhaps one true star in Elizabeth Warren (64). Liberals love her colleague, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown (60), while moderates might get behind Virginia’s Mark Warner (58). Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick? 56. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper? 61. That leaves just two nationally regarded Democrats in their 40s: Newark Mayor Cory Booker (44) and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (46).

Age in and of itself may be irrelevant to performing the job, but in building a movement it’s obviously more desirable to have younger leaders who can carry the baton for years to come. While the GOP’s bumper crop of young talent is driving such a movement to bring the the party into the future, Democrats are safer and apparently more content. This isn’t necessarily a problem for 2016, given Clinton’s strength (assuming she runs), but may well be one for 2020, 2024 and so on. Of course, some current leaders will fall before then, and new ones will emerge, but it’s easy to see who might be leading the GOP five years from now. It’s much murkier for the Democrats.

Why might Democrats not be building a farm team? For one, the current leaders are crowding everyone else out. Just take Clinton. She’s so popular, so powerful, so well connected and so capable of fundraising that up-and-comers may deem it futile (or even suicidal) to challenge her. And they’re not wrong. In February, a PPP poll found that Clinton was the first choice of 58 percent of Democratic voters nationally, and 68 percent of voters in Iowa, where the first primary contest will take place. Joe Biden is way behind her at 19 percent. And after the vice president, it’s a smattering of single digits for the Cuomo, O’Malley, Warren and the rest. By contrast, the GOP’s current leader, Marco Rubio, barely edges out the competition with 22 percent nationally and 16 percent in Iowa.

The picture gets even bleaker for the next generation when you consider the fact that when PPP removed Clinton’s name from contention, Biden captured 57 percent of the vote, leaving the rest of the field at 5 percent or less. And Biden is widely expected to bow out if Clinton runs.

Of course, a lot can change in the next three years and early polls are almost always wrong. But it’s hard to think of any candidate in either party who has ever had anywhere close to the lock on the nomination that Clinton does now so far out. Polls from February 2005, three years out from 2008, missed Obama and inaccurately predicted Clinton would win, but she was only capturing about 40 percent, with John Kerry and John Edwards taking big chunks of the electorate. Right now, Clinton not only has a far bigger share of the vote than she did eight years ago, but essentially zero competition.

Another reason the Democrats may trail the Republicans in building for the future, is that while control of the White House is obviously good for your party’s policy agenda, it leaves little room for long-term bench building. Being in the opposition is more favorable to star creation. By 2016, Republicans will have had eight years and two presidential campaign cycles of media coverage and speculation about potential candidates, raising the national profiles of candidates and would-be non-candidates alike who have made a name for themselves either standing up to Obama (Paul, Cruz, Ryan) or by breaking from their own parties (Rubio, Christie).

By contrast, Democrats had no primary contest in 2012 and may have a fairly pro forma one in 2016, depriving their farm team of valuable experience of running. (Even a failed campaign yields media attention, national visibility, a network of campaign staff and funders, and connections to local leaders and volunteers.)

Meanwhile, the internal politics of the GOP are much friendlier to young insurgents than those on the Democratic side. The leaders of the Democratic Party are immensely popular among the base, as is the party itself. While 73 percent of liberals have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, just 56 percent of conservatives like the GOP.

Eighty-five percent of Democrats have a favorable view of Obama (and that’s down from from a few months ago), while that number is 88 percent for Clinton and close to that for Biden. And despite being the least liked member of a deeply disliked body, Nancy Pelosi is viewed favorably by 62 percent of Democrats. On the other hand, just 52 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of John Boehner — Mitch McConnell’s approval rating among GOP voters is a measly 38 percent.

With few popular leaders and a general dissatisfaction with the party overall, there’s a big vacuum for young insurgent Republicans politicians to move up. Meanwhile, Democrats feel pretty satisfied with their leaders, so there’s little impetus for new blood.

Again, the Democrats may get away with a shoddy bench in 2016, assuming Clinton runs and things play out even remotely like they look like they might at the moment (a big if). But it can’t work forever; eventually a poor farm system catches up to you. To stay on top a decade from now, Democrats will need to recruit and elevate new leaders, and give room to stars like Warren to grow their national brand. (Remember Julian Castro?)

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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