Generation X has hit the campaign trail.
For the first time, multiple members of Gen X are running for president – candidates who came of age during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the fall of Communism, the first Gulf War and the 24-hour news cycle. They expertly quote from ‘80s and 90s movies and music. They admit to being hooked on video games and binge-watching "mind candy" television.
Politically, they are painting themselves as young, fresh alternatives to lead the country in a new direction, away from candidates named Bush and Clinton. Their politics largely lie in the same narrow band as most of the rest of the GOP field. What’s different – often around the margins, sometimes front and center – are the stories they use to relay those views and the experiences that shaped them.
“Now the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American century,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who turns 44 on Thursday, said last month as he announced his presidential run in Miami – a line he’s repeated at nearly every campaign stop since. “This election is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.”
Rubio, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), 44, and prospective candidate and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 43, are the first presidential aspirants to be born in the 1970s. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is 47. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is 52, the far edge of what is considered Generation X, a label that is generally applied to those born between 1964 and 1980. So is President Obama, born in 1961.
For some of these men, their youth affords them a trail currency not readily available to older candidates including Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Texas Gov. Rick Perry: the ability to speak fluently about the popular culture of recent decades.
“We live in an HBO, ESPN, TMZ society,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Most people do not follow politics that closely. Sometimes, talking about something other than politics can be smarter than talking about politics.”
And in a Republican Party enamored with all things Reagan, the younger candidates – who can’t share stories of meeting or working alongside the 40th president – are able to speak about him in ways their audience is more likely to relate to personally, by sharing the ways his time in office molded their political development at the very earliest ages.
“For folks like John McCain and Bob Dole, they showed themselves in camera shots with Reagan as a peer,” said Kevin Madden, a Generation X Republican strategist who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012. The current candidates are fond of Reagan because he "defined the big issues of their generation."
Spokespeople for Cruz, Rubio, Walker and Paul declined to comment for this story. But the candidates are speaking for themselves, with generationally-attuned references from a VFW hall in New Hampshire to a hotel ballroom in Des Moines.
Cruz once aspired to be an actor, and peppers his stump speeches with references to quotes from 20- and 30-year old movies including The Usual Suspects and Jerry Maguire. His favorite movie: The Princess Bride. The Texas Republican also does impressions, including Scotty from Star Trek, and Darth Vader.
Last month, Cruz was asked to choose his favorite episode of The Simpsons. “You know, that’s a tough call,” he said on The Federalist Radio Hour. He then launched into descriptions of his favorite episodes – including a quote from Treehouse of Horror VII, in which aliens descend to earth and take over the bodies of the 1996 presidential candidates, then-President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas).
Rubio, meanwhile, has declared himself the “only member" of the Senate hip-hop caucus – though he’s shied away from demonstrating his favorites. “The ones that I know are from the ‘90s, they’re not – they would all be censored anyway,” he told NBC News this year.
Rubio also has taken sides in the infamous East Coast-West Coast battle for early ‘90s rap supremacy. The Floridian noted that Tupac Shakur rose to fame he was in college and law school.
“I think Tupac’s lyrics were probably more insightful, in my opinion,” Rubio told BuzzFeed in 2013. “With all apologies to the Biggie fans.”
In a 2012 interview with GQ, Rubio said his three favorite rap songs are NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Killuminati by Shakur and Lose Yourself by Eminem (“If you had one shot ... to seize everything you ever wanted…would you capture it? Or let it slip [away]?”)
Scott Walker only occasionally cites pop culture – with mixed results. In March, he compared the Iran-Israel conflict to an Eddie Murphy movie.
“I remember the movie in the ‘80s, Trading Places,” Walker told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “You know, with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, it’s like Iran and Israel are trading places in the sequel.”
The relative youth of Cruz, Rubio and Paul is also an asset when they speak to voters even younger than they are, a demographic Republicans have struggled to appeal to in recent elections.
Cruz explains his opposition to Obamacare by telling young people to Google a Jimmy Kimmel clip. He often mentions that a group of Republicans were murdered at a Ted Cruz fundraiser on the HBO show True Blood. “For anyone over 40 in the room, True Blood is a show on HBO about vampires,” Cruz said in New Hampshire in March.
Rubio has said he is friends with the rapper Pitbull – “Armando” to the senator – and is a fan of musician Nicki Minaj. Paul, a frequent user of Snapchat, has shared a clip of himself taking poker lessons from the “King of Instagram” and Jon Stewart. The Kentucky Republican is also notorious for his Twitter trolling tendencies, taking aim at everyone from Hillary Clinton and President Obama to his Republican presidential rivals.
The Gen X candidates recount not only how the '80s and '90s shaped their politics, but also their personal lives. Rubio and his wife Jeanette were at a crossroads in their relationship in 1995. He went to a foam party at a South Beach club. She wasn't happy. He recalls wading out of the foam, which stripped the color off his cheap shoes, and realized his life was "phony and unsustainable."
“I left the club and found the nearest pay phone. I called Jeanette,” he writes in his book. She told him to go home or never see her again. “I hailed a cab and went home. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Of course, the relative youth of Gen X candidates can be a liability in Republican circles too, strategists say, because of lingering hostility toward President Obama.
“You do have voters will also hesitate because of the most recent example of a candidate who was ushered into office at a young age,” said Madden.
Then again, the ‘80s nostalgia can play a politically advantageous role with GOP audiences, with many Gen X candidates often sharing memories of Reagan from their elementary school days.
Rubio wrote in his memoir that Reagan’s election was a defining political influence on him, pointing to a paper he wrote in the fifth grade praising the president. Cruz has gone even further, laying generational claim to The Great Communicator.
“For me, I was 10 when Reagan became president. I was 18 when he left the White House,” Cruz said two years ago. “The World War II generation would often talk about FDR as, quote, ‘our president.’ I’ll go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president.”