09/21/2019 08:00 EDT

The 2020 Primary Is Millennials vs. Boomers. Choose Your (70-Something) Fighter.

"There's a terrible misconception about generational politics — that somehow people vote because somebody is a certain age," late political consultant Pat Caddell said in 1988.

The youths love Bernie Sanders. In pollafterpoll, the 78-year-old Vermont senator leads all other candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination among Millennials and Generation Z.

That a man born before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor is Millennials and Gen Z’s preferred candidate might raise some eyebrows. It’s natural to assume that generational change candidates are supposed to look like generational change. John F. Kennedy was just 43 when he declared at his 1961 inaugural that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century.” And sure, generational politics is probably far too bourgeois of a concept for a democratic socialist seeking to build a cross-generational working-class movement to embrace.

But generational change doesn’t have to come from a candidate of the rising younger generations. That’s at least what the late political consultant Pat Caddell, the foremost advocate of generational politics, said.

“There’s a terrible misconception about generational politics ― that somehow people vote because somebody is a certain age,” he said in 1988. Instead, the generational politics argument is that people vote for candidates based on “shared values and shared experiences.”

Millennial politicians agree. “Generational change doesn’t mean elect whoever is younger,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday about her endorsement of Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) over his much younger primary challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).

That’s the sort of thing that Sanders is selling. Two-thirds of his Facebook advertising targets voters under 44 years old — the highest percentage of any of the candidates, according to Facebook advertising data collected by the progressive digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. And the time is ripe. The first election in which candidates argued that Baby Boomers should be running the country happened in 1984, when the oldest Boomers were 38 years old. That’s how old the oldest Millennials are today.

The Cycles of American History

Diana Walker via Getty Images
Pollster Pat Caddell in his office speaking re: "debategate" and holding Carter briefing book and materials from his 1980 campaign. (Photo by Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

The concept of the “generation” ― a coherent age cohort with shared life experiences ― was invented in the mid-19th century by European philosophers seeking a way to calculate the ebb and flow of historical change. It’s a slippery concept that may or may not mean anything at all. But the obsession with generations found its way into American politics nonetheless. 

Franklin Roosevelt told the 1936 Democratic National Convention crowd that “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” Teddy Roosevelt pushed for the Spanish-American War as a means to test the mettle of his generation in war. And, of course, there was Kennedy.

But it’s Caddell who shapes our contemporary understanding of generational politics. After helping Jimmy Carter win the White House in 1976, Caddell decided that the fight over which party would win the votes of the rising Baby Boom generation would define the elections of the 1980s and the future of the country.

Caddell’s plan was to contrive a Kennedy replicant for Baby Boomers. This Camelot copy was based on a fictitious presidential candidate — Sen. Smith — Caddell tested to focus groups. Smith was a 40-something senator; a passionate idealist who echoed the liberal patriotism of President John Kennedy, but campaigned on “new ideas” that would break with stodgy New Deal policies of the past. 

Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, born in 1936 and not a Baby Boomer, was the first to don the Sen. Smith persona in 1984.

“The fault line of the party is now between those who have been in office for 20 or 25 years and those who have come into office in the last 10 years and who are less tied to the arrangements dating to Roosevelt and Johnson,” Hart said.

Hart barely lost the nomination to Walter Mondale and then fled the 1988 nomination fight after he was caught in an extramarital affair. Historian Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Cycles of American History” further popularized generational arguments in politics in 1986. And Caddell’s faith in generational politics did not waver. He found a new candidate to don the Sen. Smith persona: the then-44-year-old Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.

The choice of Biden didn’t come out of the blue. Biden had made the same generational argument for some time and was pursued by Caddell to be the generational candidate in 1984, but declined.

But Biden suffered from the same problems as Hart. Born in 1942, he wasn’t technically a Baby Boomer and he didn’t participate in the animating dramas of the 1960s ― the protests, the sit-ins, the boycotts, the drugs ― that Caddell thought united the Baby Boom generation. He clumsily oversold his connection to the protest movements of the ’60s and then when he tried to pivot from the generational message to one aimed at working-class voters, he wound up plagiarizing a British politician’s biography. He dropped out of the race and later said he regretted overselling his Boomer radical bona fides, noting that “wasn’t me.”

The Baby Boom generation would have to wait for one of their own, Bill Clinton, to take generational control of the White House in 1992. Clinton’s advisers repeatedly told the press that they did not believe in the promise of generational politics and weren’t campaigning on it. That’s because their candidate already embodied it. Unlike Hart and Biden, Clinton had protested, dodged the draft and smoked pot (but didn’t inhale). The campaign anthem’s chorus, Stevie Nicks singing, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” said it all.

Baby Boomers ― Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump ― have held the White House ever since. But neither party ever gained a hold on the generation. Its main unifying generational experience turned out to be division.

Shared Values

Carly Hein of Omaha, Nebraska, talks on her cell phone as she waits for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to arrive at a rally for Omaha Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello, Thursday, April 20, 2017.

As Baby Boomers sought generational change by moving away from the New Deal government intervention policies of their parents, Sanders remained linked to the old consensus. The values he espoused and the policies he pushed seemed out of tune as the Baby Boom generation came into power, but today politics has come back around to him.

His calls for single-payer health care, free college and student loan forgiveness have been embraced by many young voters who have grown up during the slow-motion collapse of the neoliberal economic order.

Millennials came of age in an era of spiraling inequality, booming child care and housing costs, the rise of student loan debt and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Where Baby Boomers’ vision of societal collapse was New York City’s near bankruptcy, Millennials saw their future prospects dimmed by an overcooked global financial system, the same one that seized power after President Gerald Ford told New York to drop dead. Americans born in the 1980s were 34 percent worse off economically than expected due to the financial crisis, according to a 2018 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

It’s no surprise then that younger generations have different attitudes about government than those who came before them. They believe that government should be more involved in economic affairs than older generations and favor “Medicare for All” and free college policies promoted by candidates like Sanders. They are more amenable to “socialism” over “capitalism” than older generations. They identify as liberal Democrats at higher rates than any other generation and have the widest partisan gap in favor of the Democratic Party than any other generation. And they prioritize issue positions over electability.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gets a hug from Ruth Nowadzky, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

Like Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is in her 70s, but she missed the rightward economic shift of the Democratic Party in the late 20th century. Despite actually being a Baby Boomer, she also didn’t have the experiences that Caddell thought defined their generation. Warren dropped out of college at 19 in 1968 to get married. She spent most of the 1970s working her way through college and then law school while raising her children. Warren’s entrance into electoral politics in 2012 came in response to the financial crisis that has come to define Millennial life. She consistently polls second to Sanders among younger voters while maintaining equivalent support across all age groups.

And although Sanders may be the generational change candidate for the youth, Biden, today 76 years old, represents a different kind of generational politics ― that of the older generations. His perch atop the polls is buoyed by wide support from voters over the age of 65, but limited support from the young. Thirty-five percent of his campaign’s Facebook advertising targets over-65 voters ― the most of any candidate ― while only 16 percent targets voters under 45.

Once the avatar of generational change, today Biden says he was called to run again to put away the demons the Baby Boom generation he identifies with thought they had defeated in their youth. The “contorted faces” of torch-bearing neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, an echo of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1960s, Biden said, forced him to run for president.

“I never thought I’d see something like that again in my life,” he declared.

Notice that word, “again.” For a generation whose narrative involves successfully marching to end Jim Crow and pass civil and voting rights and fair housing legislation, the sight of the old evils ― fueled by the rhetoric of a Baby Boomer president, no less ― is a call to action.

This is no time to “pass the torch,” as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a Millennial who briefly ran for president, suggested Biden do. “The reason I’m not passing the torch is because I don’t want them to burn their hands,” Biden said at a fundraiser on Thursday. 

As Bob Dole ran his 1996 presidential campaign as the last fight of the G.I. Generation, Biden’s is billed as the last march — the last protest — of his own.

Matt Fuller contributed reporting.