According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, Americans under the age of 30 favor President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by almost a two-to-one margin. This is a startling statistic. What explains the lopsided support for President Obama among younger Americans?
I think the two main reasons are ideological and personal.
It’s no revelation to say that young people tend to be more liberal about issues like the redistribution of wealth. You may have heard the old adage, “Anyone who is not a socialist when he is 20, has no heart; anyone who is still a socialist when he is 30, has no mind.” I lived that adage. I was a young socialist 40 years ago who voted for the likable-but-too-conservative George McGovern. Then, after emerging from the collegiate cocoon, weaning myself from financial dependency on others, and seeing the real-world devastation wrought by socialism, I embraced capitalism.
The fact of the matter is that our intellect develops more slowly than our feelings. In my case, my youthful concern for the poor never left me. I simply recognized that free markets, however imperfect, are far more effective at reducing poverty than government programs and socialist dystopias. Likewise, today’s youth generally have good intentions; they just don’t always perceive the optimal means to attain their goals. When you combine that intellectual immaturity with the barrage of leftist indoctrination that many colleges inflict on them—plus their support of certain Obama social policies—it is no wonder that the under-30 segment of our population favors President Obama.
As significant as the ideological factor is for explaining the millennials’ support for him, the president’s personal attractiveness to them looms equally large. Indeed, the young are not unique in voting in response to a presidential candidate’s likability. We have known at least since the Kennedy-Nixon race (JFK’s fresh-faced handsomeness contrasted with Nixon’s off-putting jowly, 5 o’clock shadow during their televised debates) that many Americans vote for a president on the basis of the wrapping rather than the contents of the package—the triumph of image over substance. This may not speak well for our country’s political maturity, or perhaps even for democracy itself, but personality often trumps policy.
I have spoken to several under-30s recently, and I was struck by how often they referred to President Obama as cool or “hip.” Indeed, he can be very winsome. He has that charismatic, incandescent smile; the ability to project gravitas and dignity in one moment and then to be disarmingly informal and down-home normal in the next; the talent for delivering a text in tones that are alternately inspiring, warm, soothing, or fired with passion; and a knack for coming across as level-headed, genuine, reasonable, quietly confident, and so very accessible in his well-crafted television commercials.
If young Americans want to vote for President Obama because he is cooler than Romney, that is their right and privilege. It is sad, though, that they seem oblivious to the high price they are paying for “coolness.” Underneath the hip, attractive surface is a president who says many of the “right” things about helping America move forward, and then cynically acts in ways that hamper progress. Many young Americans (and not a few older ones) who find Obama attractive have a hard time connecting the dots and comprehending just how harmful his policies have been for young Americans.
Do the under-30s really want a president who has tried and succeeded in raising the price of electricity and gasoline; who has hastened the day of Social Security’s insolvency by cutting the revenues to that program; who has raised future taxes on young Americans through the reckless addition of trillions of dollars to the national debt; whose policies have pushed food prices higher; who has tried to keep home prices from falling to levels that would make them affordable to younger Americans?
Do they want four more years of an aggressively antibusiness, hyper-regulatory administration that has squelched job growth and employment opportunities?
Do they want to continue down the path to a European-style welfare state like Spain, where close to half of young adults are unemployed?
I think not, but that is the kind of country they may vote for. Too many young Americans don’t connect the current economic stagnation with the president’s policies. They are charmed by his personality while being harmed by his policies. Because I too was once young, I understand that President Obama is like the Pied Piper wooing, attracting and seducing the young, who merrily and blindly follow his bewitching tune. I hope they veer off this path before it reaches its inevitable tragic end, a future they don’t want to experience.
Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared on Forbes.com.