The X Files

Thursday, April 30, 1998
Kellyanne Fitzpatrick
Kellyanne Fitzpatrick

HARRINGTON What would the political profile of Generation X be?

FITZPATRICK The political profile of the members of Generation X has been, and I think will continue to be, somewhat nebulous and undefined. Their cultural experiences have been quite apolitical--not antipolitical, I would emphasize, but apolitical. If you ask this generation, "In politics today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?" you will find a high number identifying themselves as Independents. In other words, Gen X is refusing to anchor its collective loyalty to one party or another.

You can gauge Generation X more ideologically than politically. It tends to be conservative but libertarian. This is unsurprising--after all, these individuals had to develop a great deal of self-reliance at an early age as latchkey kids, and they expect that from others as well. So it's easier to talk about Gen X in ideological terms than in strict political terms.

Above all, Xers are entrepreneurial, self-reliant, multicultural, tolerant, and libertarian. This generation has never identified with good government, and it cannot remember a good thing government has done for it. Xers are disconnected from our major institutions--government, the media, the military, education, and religion. Xers are self-reliant, so they tend not to look to institutions for solutions.

HARRINGTON Handicap the likely Democratic and Republican presidential prospects in the year 2000 on their Generation X appeal.

FITZPATRICK I would say that Al Gore has little appeal among Generation Xers for the simple reason that Xers eschew hypocrisy. The irony for Al Gore is that his running mate, Bill Clinton, had considerable appeal among young people. But that reservoir of goodwill and "coolness," if you will, does not automatically get bequeathed to the second banana. You've got to earn that on your own, and Al Gore has not. Young people are uncomfortable with him--he's the uncle who buys them subscriptions to Field & Stream for Christmas and makes them sit up straight at the dinner table. Bill Clinton got them their first girl and their first beer. So Xers identify with Al Gore very differently.

Among other potential Democrats, I imagine that someone like Bill Bradley may have some appeal among younger voters because he's a national celebrity and established figure outside politics. He's a Rhodes scholar and a basketball star, and so he can make a credible case for being a capital I Independent. I think that as time marches on, though, Evan Bayh, the current governor of Indiana, will be the Democrat to look out for in terms of appeal.

Among the Republicans, Dan Quayle has potential with young people. He's young, he's got a handsome young family. But it's more than that. He talks about the kind of core, commonsense values that appeal to Generation Xers, the kind that its grandparents--the silent generation--grew up with. For obvious reasons, Xers have more respect for their grandparents than they do for their parents, and a candidate like Dan Quayle can really speak to them on a level that resonates with them.

If the election were held today, and Colin Powell were a candidate, he would bring out the largest turnout among young people in ages.

Curiously enough, Jack Kemp has always had great appeal among young people. It's his sense of vibrancy, his ability to project youth and optimism, his status as a celebrity outside politics.

As for other Republicans who appeal to young people, look out for John Kasich. He's forty-three or forty-four, chairman of the Budget Committee, newly married, takes his staff to Oasis concerts, and knows his way around the hip vernacular.

If we want to speculate as to who will become the new Reagan standard-bearer, we'd do well to take a look at Steve Forbes. He's willing to talk about what he believes and how tough and active he's willing to be. That frankness could win over Xers. Outsiders à la Ross Perot are attractive to them, and Forbes is one. Fred Thompson, too--again, a guy who made a career outside politics.

George W. Bush would probably appeal to Generation X--he's got an endearing chip on his shoulder, if you will, that is not unlike that of many young people. In other words, "Take no prisoners and show me the results right now," not instant gratification but instant, result-focused action, if you will. I think that the one thing that works against Governor Bush is his last name. It will bring him tremendous goodwill from lots of people and lots of money from Republican donors, but it also puts him into a category of what I call "recidivist candidates"--people who have run for president before and want to repeat the crime. Generation Xers are the first to say, "We want fresh blood. We want a change."

Now, Colin Powell has tremendous appeal among Gen X. If the election were held today and he were a candidate, two things would happen: he would win it hands down, and he would bring out the largest turnout among young people in ages.

And that, essentially, is what young people are waiting for. They are holding out for a hero who shows them that it is worth their time and energy to vote. For Generation X, it's not a question of "For whom should I vote?" but "Why should I vote?" A strong position on the issues is the cost of admission for any candidate who wishes to appeal to Generation X. On top of that, of course, is the right combination of message, messenger, and delivery style.

But there's no magical formula for winning the votes of Generation Xers. They aren't single-issue voters, and they don't favor the same type of candidate every time. Candidates have to bring a great deal to the table to attract these voters--they have to show them what they believe in, what they want to do, and how they plan to do it.