Rather, the schedule is overflowing with older or elderly figures who seem to have reached the peak of their political careers — or finished them entirely. Presidential also-ran Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is 60, will speak. President Bill Clinton, whose two-decades-old administration is outside the living memory of the country’s youngest voters, gets a prime spot. John Kasich, the 68-year-old Republican former governor of Ohio gets a live speech, as does former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who is 73 and whose elective career ended 19 years ago. Meanwhile, at age 77, the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, would be the second-oldest living president behind Jimmy Carter.
In short, the convention lineup seems tailored to appeal to older Americans and longtime voters. But sidelining figures who appeal to the young is a missed opportunity to build Democratic Party loyalty. Party identification, by far the best predictor of voting behavior, often does not change over an entire lifetime. Faced with a historically unpopular Republican president, Democrats have an opportunity to win younger Americans for decades to come.
Corporations selling brands know the best investment is always in marketing to the young — because once they latch onto your product, you may hold their loyalty for decades. Democrats need to learn this, too. In American politics right now, age isn’t just a number. There are huge and material gaps between the young and old that are of real political import.
It’s generally recognized that younger voters lean left. But the magnitude of the division is underacknowledged. The split is not merely a smattering of teenage socialists vs. everyone else — for Democrats, the leftward tilt includes everyone under middle age.
On Super Tuesday, the closest thing 2020 saw to a straight-up showdown on the future ideological direction of the party, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won voters under 45 by 31 points. Sanders and fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) won a combined 60 percent of voters between the ages of 30 and 44. Biden, on the other hand, received less than one-fifth of voters under 45. Primary elections are heavily dominated by older voters — but Democrats can hardly use this as an excuse to ignore the preferences of younger groups because general elections are different. In the 2016 election, the left-leaning under-45 age group made up 45 percent of all votes — and of course, millennials and Generation Z will make up a larger and larger share of the electorate over time.
Failing to reach out to the young also risks excluding other groups important to the Democrats’ political fortunes. Only 43 percent of White Americans are under 38, but 59 percent of non-White Americans are. That means a party alienated from the young is alienated from the majority of Americans of color.
Exacerbating the problem is that some people in these diverse younger generations won’t see too many people who look like them on the convention stage. Young Arab Americans will only see one Arab American speaker. Other groups are even more poorly represented. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, only two live speakers — Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — are Hispanic or Latino, a group that makes up nearly one-fifth of Americans.
This isn’t, however, just a problem of racial representation. The older political generation tends to see race as the most fundamental political dividing line, and graying party leadership often talks about the need to maximize Black support and the need to maximize the support of young progressives — too often stereotyped as heavily White — as if they were mutually exclusive options.
Perhaps because they came of age with peers who weren’t overwhelmingly White, younger voters seem to think about race differently than older ones, recognizing ideological lines as readily as racial ones. Look more closely, and it becomes apparent that Democrats’ area of greatest weakness among the Black vote is with younger voters, who, like young people writ large, were disproportionately likely to prefer Sanders and Warren in the recent primary. Turnout among the youngest Black voters fell sharply in 2016.
You can pry out similar conclusion when it comes to Hispanic voters. Commentators marveled at how well Sanders did with this group in Nevada, Texas, and California. But Hispanic voters are also, on average, the youngest major racial group in the United States. In a nation split politically along generational lines, you’d fully expect Sanders to show surprising strength among Hispanic voters, as a consequence of his strength among the young.
Republicans are attempting to make cross-generational appeals. While President Trump is 74 years old, many of his public-facing officials are younger. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is 32, and Trump’s most influential behind-the-scenes operator is Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration policy, is 34. Several of the GOP’s most publicized leaders are also younger; Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) is 36.
But including the voices of younger Americans doesn’t just mean elevating token millennials into national prominence. Younger Americans don’t need Democrats to designate their political representatives; they’ve chosen many of those representatives themselves. Some, like Ocasio-Cortez and her band of House insurgents are young, but other politicians preferred by this group, like Sanders and Warren, are older. The way to lure these voters into a Democratic coalition is to include people who genuinely appeal to younger generations, wherever they might hail from.
As currently, youthful voters make up an ever-greater share of America, finding a way to wrap them into the Democratic mainstream is likely to become critical to sustaining the Democrats’ “big tent” coalition. In the short term, Democrats of all stripes have rallied around the need to defeat Trump, but without Trump on the scene, these fundamental generational divides threaten to break further into the open.
Party conventions — traditionally when the vast majority of non-politically obsessed voters tune into presidential campaigns for the first time — are showcases for new talent. Democrats made the right choice to highlight Barack Obama, then a 43-year-old Senate candidate, to deliver the 2004 keynote address, which propelled him to the presidency four years later.
It is highly unlikely that 78-year-old billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who has so far reneged on his pledge to spend a billion dollars to defeat Trump, will sweep 18-year-olds off their feet and into the party’s arms.
Instead of unfurling a vision that inspires millions of young people, the party’s next Obama might be spending convention week tweeting her impressions from the sidelines.