Why is Barack Obama now electable?

From the youth vote to Sarah Palin's outdated embrace of the rural mystique, Salon's panel of demographers and consumer trend experts talks about how America is changing.

Published October 21, 2008 10:55AM (EDT)

Cable TV and newspaper Op-Ed pages are full of pundits and campaign strategists using the latest election polls to opine glibly on the mood of America. Bored with this kind of bloviating, Salon decided to do the exact opposite -- and use the mood of America as a way to generalize about the election. We assembled three leading demographers and trend analysts to talk about which major nonpolitical factors are shaping the electoral environment -- from population shifts to major changes in public attitudes. We asked them about the state of America on the eve of one of the most epochal elections in modern history.

Demographer Cheryl Russell is the former editor in chief of American Demographics magazine, the editorial director of New Strategist Publications and the author of the just-published "Bet You Didn't Know: Hundreds of Intriguing Facts About Living in the USA."

Consumer-behavior guru Ann Clurman is the executive vice president for trends and futures consulting at the Futures Company, the firm produced by the merger of two other forecasting firms, Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich. She is the coauthor of the 2007 book "Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today ... and They're Just Getting Started."

Peter Francese, who founded American Demographics magazine, is an expert on demographics and consumer marketing. He serves as demographic trends analyst for the advertising agency Oglivy & Mather.

I spoke with Francese, Clurman and Russell by phone. The following transcript of the conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  -- Walter Shapiro

Salon: Welcome to you all. The whole idea of this conversation is, instead of generalizing about the country from the election, we have brought together three demographics experts and trend analysts to talk about how to generalize about the election from what they know about the country.

So where to start? Leaving the Wall Street meltdown aside for a few minutes, how would each of you say the country was different than it was four years ago?

Peter Francese: My feeling is what's different than four years ago, and it's only a little bit different, is the continuing concentration of income at the top of the income scale. Before the financial meltdown, there was enormous concentration of income in the top 20 percent, top 10 percent, top 5 percent of the income scale. And that distorted the picture of really what America is when the top 20 percent of households in America take home half of all the income earned. And I think there's been an increasing bitterness and anger about that, but I do think that the top 20 percent has suffered rather mightily over the last several weeks.

Salon: I want to come back to that in a second because I want to talk about how life has changed in the last four to six weeks because of the financial meltdown. But I was just curious, Ann and Cheryl, what leaps out at you about how the country has been changing in the last four years?

Ann Clurman: There has been a very well-known shift in power from marketers to consumers. Consumers have been really good at celebrating how smart they are, how empowered they are. We've been picking that up for at least a decade. What I think is really significant is what we're calling "personal authenticity." And what that was, that kind of reached a critical mass in 2004, it was a coming together of a number of values and trends that we described as consumers really working on internal clarity of their values. Not only were they kind of trying to understand what was really important to them, they began to develop the courage to act on [those things]. And part of that meant moving out of your comfort zone -- and I think that is very important to what's happening today. But also, this desire to get life right became a passion. What we're seeing today is a massive shift beginning to surface and that shift is not just being caused the last four or five weeks.

Salon: I'm curious what Cheryl has to say to the same question.

Cheryl Russell: I want to put a word in here for the demographics. There is this slow, inexorable change in our country toward much greater diversity. You might not be able to bank on the stock market, but you can bank on demographic change. And that change means that the United States is going to be a minority majority country according to the Census Bureau by 2042. And what's happening is that every year we become more and more diverse and the voices of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities are becoming more powerful. And in this election I think this is playing out big time.

Francese: That is an absolute fact.

Salon: I'm going to put the financial crisis on hold for a minute and ask, Could the America of 2000 or 2004 embrace a Barack Obama for president? Was America ready four or eight years ago for a mixed-race presidential candidate or was it just that Obama happened to come along in 2008? Is he a lagging indicator that America is changing or is this the first year where it's possible to imagine someone like Barack Obama being elected?

Clurman: Let me take the first crack at that. I know that demographics are critical and I'm going to leave that to the other experts. I've been thinking long and hard about this and my answer would be no, it wouldn't have happened in 2000 and 2004. First of all, critically, the changing demographics. Secondly, we have to look at the last eight years. I don't know what word you want to use for it -- I was going to say "heinous." Thirdly, the youth vote. That's a huge demographic shift, the coming of age of the millennials or the Gen Ys, or whatever you want to call them, and their feelings about all of this. I also want to go back to what I said earlier, which is, people are much more willing to move outside their comfort zone. And while I do believe unfortunately a lot of people are still uncomfortable with Sen. Obama's candidacy, they're going to go for him because they understand it's time to change the discussion.

One of the things we are telling our marketing clients, and one of the things I think Obama's people understand really well, is stop talking about what doesn't work, stop yearning for a time that was, stop talking about, "Gee, I wish we could still do this." With the new realities, we can't. That's old language. The language we need to use is changing the discussion entirely and to ask new questions. We tell everyone, "Think outside the box," and my argument would be, "Change the box in general." Apropos of this, I just got one of those breaking news e-mails, and apparently Advertising Age has named Obama the marketer of the year.

Russell: I agree with Ann. The times create a candidate. What we see playing out in the election today, it's really a long-simmering battle between the generations. It's the battle between the way things used to be and the way things will be. And everybody thought for a long time that the boomers would be the warriors in this battle. But in fact, boomers are actually, or many boomers are, conservative, so that battle never really played out fully. But now, it is their children, the millennial generation, that is on the front line of this battle.

Salon: What do you mean precisely by the millennial generation?

Russell: The millennial generation is basically young adults, technically anyone under the age of 32 this year. But basically it's the young-adult population. When you're talking about voters, you're talking about the "18 to 29" voters, the 18-to-31-year-old vote. So the older generations in 2000 and 2004 still had the upper hand numerically. But this year maybe the younger generations and the new voters will have the numerical upper hand. The financial crisis has driven many of the older people more in alignment in their attitudes with the younger generation. We may see it play out on Nov. 4 that the new way has the upper hand. But that remains to be seen because there are a lot of issues involved with the youth vote and the minority vote.

Salon: I want to come back to the youth vote in particular in a minute.

Francese: Let's never forget that Barack Obama would never have had a chance to become president of the United States were it not for the Internet. And that four years or eight years ago, the power of the Internet wasn't where it is today. He has raised most of his money off the Internet. He has energized the youth vote using the Internet.

Salon: But so did Howard Dean four years ago.

Francese: Not to the extent that Obama is doing it. Obama is an expert at marketing, if you want to call it that. And I think that his use of it to raise money and to energize his proponents has really put him head and shoulders above John McCain, who does not know how to do that. And so I think that it's that power, but there's a second item too. Through the appointment of several high-level Cabinet members in the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice for example, and Colin Powell, the ascendancy of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice has made Americans comfortable with black Americans in positions of high, high responsibility and of power. Seeing Condoleezza Rice negotiating around the world with world leaders has made many Americans comfortable with the idea of black people in leadership positions. None of that was possible eight years ago.

Salon: Everyone keeps raising good points I want to come back to. But the thing I don't want to get lost is the question I was going to ask at the outset. Peter talked about income inequality as being one of the big changes in America in this decade. Ann talked about American consumers, particularly baby boomers, wanting to get their lives right. Now we have a situation where no one thinks we've gotten the economy right -- something like 9 percent of the American people think we're on the right track. How has this changed attitudes and just your sense, even demographically, of what are going to be both the short- and the long-term effects of this current crisis?

Francese: I will just jump in here quickly and say that one of the things I think is going to happen is it will lower the rate at which people are able to buy homes. And so the percentage of homeownership among millennials for a while, at least until the recession is over and credit is easier, is going to [drop]. We will see more young adults living at home with their parents than we might have. Because that happens in almost every recession that I've ever tracked. I think it will have a measurable effect on the structure of American households and how they live.

Russell: I really agree with what Peter is saying. This financial crisis and the feeling that things are going in the wrong direction have been a long, long time in coming. If you look at men's incomes, men's earnings, among men who work full time, their earnings peaked in 1986. That's more than 20 years ago. So for the past 20 years, why have household incomes been increasing? For one reason only: the working woman. And now, virtually every woman who is going to go to work is at work. That boost to household incomes is over. The only other remaining boost to household incomes is that we have the baby boom generation right now in peak earning years and that has kept the numbers from falling. For example, when the Census Bureau released its 2007 income statistics, household income increased slightly. The only reason for that increase was the baby boom generation in their peak earning years. People are realizing they are not getting ahead, and they don't see any improvement in the future, and that is one of the reasons they want change.

Salon: So the political slogan should be: Are you better off than you were 20 years ago?

Russell: People think they're better off because their wives have gone to work. So they've said, "My household income is higher than my parents' was back then." That's true, but it's only true because you have more earners and more workers. Every household has more workers than it used to.

Francese: And four years ago they thought they were wealthier because their houses were worth so much money. Not anymore.

Clurman: We've been tracking what we call our economic anxiety scale since last January. And of course there's hardly anybody who says they don't have any anymore ... [As early as] January 2008, people were beginning to take some stock of what was going on. And I also want to make the point that one of the major, major shifts that we see coming right now -- and it's just beginning to surface -- is a shift toward owning some of these problems that we face.

I think what's happening is, as the economic ground is shifting under consumers' feet, they're kind of waking up to all the other stuff they've been blocking. Like we don't really save any money; our kids don't really do well on an international basis when it comes to adding and subtracting. We've got two gas guzzlers in our garage and we may only need one. People are beginning to wake up, and in some very recent data we have, we found that 73 percent of people say that our society gives a pass too easily. People are going to stop pointing fingers at everybody else and starting pointing them at themselves.

Francese: That's why Barack Obama did so well in that last debate where the last thing he said [was], we're all going to have to make sacrifices. I think that resonated incredibly well with an awful lot of Americans.

Clurman: It really does. I think one of the reasons people are not quite as hysterical about what is going on is that they realize a lot of other people are in the same boat. Everybody is getting hit hard here. It's very interesting. We call it the "new responsibility marketplace," but it's kind of not here yet. It's coming, and slowly but surely we're going to see this rolling out. People are realizing on some level that it's time to pay their proverbial piper.

Salon: Just to clarify, you think that people understand the magnitude of the problem?

Clurman: They understand on some level. Some people who are up there intellectually understand this problem, but I think on some gut level, people understand that we have got a lot of really serious problems and what's happening is the economy has acted as a lightning rod for some serious thought about where are we going. Global warming, I forgot to mention that one. What's happening to the planet, what's happening to our lives.

Salon: But I don't see people going to find scapegoats.

Clurman: That's why there's an accountability and responsibility happening. What we saw in '91, during that recessionary period, we saw the baby boomers looking at the world collapsing around them and pointing fingers and whining and saying, "This isn't my fault." And now what we're seeing, because the times are different and the demographics are different, what we're seeing is people looking around and saying, "We've got some serious issues here and we've all got to take some modicum of responsibility." It's not enough to just change your light bulbs [from incandescent to fluorescent]. We've got to do something more about what's fundamentally wrong here.

Salon: So maybe the headline is "The baby boomers have grown up"?

Francese: Don't count on it.

Salon: What I want to do is come back to the other end of the group who hasn't really grown up. Is there a demographic reason why 18-to-29-year-old voters seem more vocal, seem more involved, seem to be turning out in greater levels in any election that I can remember since the 1970s?

Russell: We'll see if they turn out. They consistently disappoint. Hopefully this time they will turn out and boost their voting rate above, I think in 2004 it was about 42 percent.

Salon: I am someone who has always thought that one of the truths about American politics is the youth vote always disappoints. I find myself slowly moving to the other camp, but I will quickly go back to my heritage of being a skeptic if it doesn't materialize. I'd be interested in what the history has shown.

Russell: The youth vote has been declining. It did increase in 2004 over 2000. There was a big leap from 32 to 42 percent in the 18-to-24-year-olds. We could see another increase again. But more important, the thing that's happened in that youth market is the increase in the number of those voters. Since 2000, the number of 18-to-29-year-olds has grown by 4 million people, because that large millennial generation has filled the age group. So you have this greater number of people; you have a much more diverse population there than among the older generation. Only 60 percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds are non-Hispanic white. So you have a lot of people identifying with Sen. Obama and encouraged to take part, participate more because they see someone who is running for president who is more like themselves. I think a third factor in the youth vote is the Internet. The Internet makes a network out of young adults.

Francese: Like Facebook.

Russell: Everything that a young adult does, everything that happens to them today, is immediately communicated to the entire network of young adults, and that kind of communication power has amplified their voice.

Francese: There's a fourth item that I want to add to that. That is the vast number of young women who are going to college. The best-educated man in America is 55 years old. But the best-educated woman is only 35. So women are going to college at significantly higher rates than men, and there are many, many more young college-educated women than there ever were before in American history. And so that higher education translates into higher Internet usage, higher awareness of what the political scene is. I think that we are all going to be pleasantly surprised, including the three reasons Cheryl just gave, that the youth vote will surprise us pleasantly this time and not stay true to form and stay away.

Clurman: You've talked about youth being more interested and more galvanized since any point since the '70s, but we also need to understand that there's a fundamental difference here. In the '60s and '70s, a lot of it was all about idealism. I think what we have today, in addition to all those wonderful demographics we heard about, these kids are very practical. Very pragmatic. This isn't about, be all good and all be altruistic and if we all make sacrifices, everything in the world will be fine in two weeks. This is a very practical, pragmatic group that understands, it's hopeful pragmatism, if you will, and that requires taking some action.

Salon: Is it that women were just going to college at a disproportionately low rate and that they've just caught up with men? Or is there something else going on with gender roles?

Francese: No. There are a couple of reasons, in my view. One, we've obviously over the last 30 years made the switch from a manufacturing, construction-based economy which favors men who are not college graduates to an office-based employment category in which most people now work in offices and that favors women. Women can work in offices equally as well as men. And they are actually a majority of the professional managerial workers according to the Census Bureau data. They're 51 or 52 percent. Women are just as capable of taking managerial and professional jobs and doing them just as well as men but those jobs usually require college degrees. So women, who mature earlier in life than men, do go to college in greater numbers, significantly greater numbers. That's a fairly recent development.

Russell: I totally agree with what you're saying, and actually the percentage of women who go to college out of high school has been significantly higher than men for the last 10 or 15 years as women poured onto college campuses. It's totally true that women are much more educated than men. And if you look at married couples today, in 2007 for the first time among married couples, the percentage in which the husband is more educated than the wife is lower than the percentage in which the wife is more educated than the husband. There's been a real change in family life.

Francese: That changes the power structure within the household in terms of who makes the decision about one thing or another. If anything is going to allow household income to rise, it's the increasing educational attainment of the women breadwinners in that household.

Salon: I'm sitting here in Indianapolis, and one of the things that fascinates me is that the normally conservative suburbs of a city like this are trending a bit more Democratic, a bit more toward Barack Obama, because the standard 35-year-old college graduate who might be working for Eli Lilly here is more liberal on social issues than the Republican Party has been for the last 25 years. Are there demographic trends to buttress this?

Francese: Certainly I agree with that statement, but those people are also working in offices with black, Hispanic, Asian professional individuals and if it's Eli Lilly, if it's a large corporation, they have diversity programs, so they're more comfortable around minorities than someone who is 65 who may have never worked in an office or for a corporation where there were professional black, Hispanic, Asian individuals.

Clurman: I think the biggest dividing line is the age issue rather than the education. And the older generation holds the more traditional attitudes. The younger generations, for them race is not as big a factor. If you look at the age breakdown for the support for Obama, the older generation was first heavily toward McCain, and then the financial crisis moved it more toward Obama.

Russell: Ann, when you say older can you define what you're talking about?

Clurman: At this moment I'm talking about 65-plus. That generation is the one that was raised in a different time with different attitudes.

Salon: Is there anything -- in terms of trend analysis or demographics -- that either campaign is doing in not an individual ad or one comment but as a consistent theme that makes you think, "What country do they think we're living in?"

Francese: Sarah Palin is the classic example of that. What country does she think we're living in? If you listen to what she says at various rallies, she's talking to a very small segment of American voters who really are going to vote for someone that they think is like them. But in fact her anti-intellectualism does not play well in most suburban and other areas. Her constant play to people who she thinks are sort of put upon by the more intelligent, the more well-educated part of the society, and her constant talk about the fact that Obama is an elitist of some sort, is really misguided in the sense that it may appeal to a small group of people who feel aggrieved because they don't have the education to get ahead in this information-based society. But it is politically foolish in my view.

Russell: I think it has real tones of Spiro Agnew. It seems to me very, very dated. That whole anti-intellectual --

Francese: Anti-media --

Russell: Exactly.

Salon: The nattering nabobs of negativism.

Russell: Sarah Palin is playing on the rural versus urban battle in the United States. Americans have a love affair with the rural, but in fact most Americans are urban or suburban today. Unfortunately, our political system is set up so that the rural areas have a great deal of political power, in the Senate. I think that trying to play up this rural vote can be effective because so many Americans relate to it. But ultimately, the suburban and urban voter should numerically take precedent.

Francese: Only 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas.

Russell: Still, playing to the rural roots of America has worked well in politics over the years, and she's just continuing that line.

Francese: Except that she's pandering, because she's doing it in a negative way. She's saying the rest of the world is somehow bad. If you live on the coast, you're somehow an effete snob, that kind of negativism. It's one thing to glorify the rural roots, as Joe Biden has championed his rural roots --

Salon: His rural roots were in Scranton, Pa., which were basically more hardscrabble small-city roots.

Russell: Every presidential campaign in recent history has played up this rural connection.

Francese: But they've played it up in a positive way. They don't play it up by bashing people who are not rural; they merely say this is a fine way of life.

Russell: I think one of the criticisms of Obama being from Chicago is the rural versus urban fight.

Salon: Is there anything else that strikes you, non-Sarah Palin related, as awry in terms of what the candidates are talking about? Cheryl, in your book, I saw based on poll analysis that 65 percent of the American people consider themselves moderates. That certainly isn't the tone in politics or on cable television.

Russell: Right, most Americans are in the middle of the road. But there's been such a partisan split in the media that's taken place, with the different cable channels focusing on different camps and talk radio, that it's driven a wedge between Americans when in fact there's very little difference between most of them.

Clurman: One thing, and I haven't been following this judiciously, but I do remember in the beginning there was a little bit more boomer bashing.

Salon: Done by Barack Obama.

Clurman: Exactly, and I thought that was a huge, huge boo-boo. And it seems to me they have walked away from that, which I think was smart to do.

Salon: Our generation may be slightly fading but it is politically risky to put us in the crosshairs.

Clurman: There are 70 million-plus boomers, and boomers vote in high numbers, and technically Obama is a boomer. I was just stunned when I saw that in the beginning, because these people who are running this are so smart. What are they thinking? And I guess that a lot of their polling told them to walk away from that.

Russell: The youngest boomer today is 44, so he's definitely a boomer, and boomers are the largest voting bloc still. In this election, 38 percent of votes are going to be cast by baby boomers in November. And that is larger than any of the other generations that will be voting.

Salon: Is that partially because boomers are now at the age where they vote very heavily, or is that all population based?

Russell: Both factors are involved. The number of boomers, and that voting increases with age. Interestingly, the millennial generation we've been talking about is 19 percent of the vote this year. And that's up from 13 percent in 2004. Generation X is 20 percent, and the older generation, which is people older than boomers, 63-plus, is 23 percent. The millennial generation, in terms of the size of its vote, is almost as large as the older generation.

Francese: That's new. That's one of the reasons Barack Obama has a chance.

Salon: And that is as good a place to end as any. Thank you all for providing us with a different way to look at the election.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz. Sarah Palin