Ask almost any political observer and they will tell you the race is tight. Obama leads or trails Mitt Romney within the margin of error in most polls, signaling a potential photo finish on November 6th. But hidden deep within the data are a set of numbers that should give Republicans panic, pause and finally comfort.
First, the panic. Among Americans aged 18 to 34 in a recent CNN poll, 73 percent plan to vote for Obama compared to just 25 percent for Romney.
That statistic is even more startling when taken together with the one point and two point leads Romney has with voters in the middle aged brackets and the 19 point lead he has with those 65 and over. Thus, the youngest demographic can be credited with giving Obama his seven point lead nationally in that poll, which just so happens to be the same margin of victory he had in 2008 against John McCain.
The poll also showed that young voters are the least in tune politically. Sixty-seven percent had never heard of Rob Portman, 65 percent of Bob McDonnell and 51 percent of Tim Pawlenty even though all were considered as vice presidential contenders at some point in time.
That, of course, is reason for pause. Who can articulate a message directly to this crucial demographic in order to close the gap? Republicans have lacked a natural and recognizable messenger younger voters can gravitate towards unlike Democrats have in Obama.
Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan to join the ticket as the vice presidential nominee, though, warrants a sense of comfort because he can change all that. In his newly minted role, Ryan has leverage to command the attention of young people around the country. At age 42, he is the first bona fide member of Generation X to receive such a prestigious seat at the national political table, putting him in a unique position to travel the country and appeal to young Americans who have yet to connect the dots in an omnidirectional 24-hour news cycle.
Take for instance what is frequently derided as “privatized” Social Security. The plan, in fact, allows Americans the option of storing their money in a personal retirement account much like they would a savings account at their local bank instead of the pay-as-you-go system we presently have that will deplete its trust fund by 2033.
The issue, along with the idea of providing premium assistance for future Medicare beneficiaries, has been used by Democrats to move numbers among senior citizens, a bloc of loyal voters who always turn out to vote. But it can also be used by Republicans to woo young Americans to their side, too.
Eight-six percent of Generation Y and 69 percent of Generation X support “changing Social Security to let younger workers put [Social Security] taxes in private accounts,” according to a Pew Research poll conducted in late 2011. The same poll showed 74 percent of Gen Y and 60 percent of Gen X approving of modifications to Medicare “so people can use benefits toward purchasing private health insurance.” Even a majority of baby boomers and those over 65 support these efforts to strengthen Social Security while a majority in three of the four age groups approve of the proposed changes to Medicare (seniors come in at 48 percent approval in though nothing would change for them).
As someone who has championed these very ideas to secure the future of Social Security and Medicare, Paul Ryan is the perfect messenger to appeal to Generations Y and X in what is increasingly becoming a generational election. That’s not just because the results will determine the path our country embarks on for the next twenty years, but more so because the views of those on either side of the age spectrum seem so out of sync with each other.
The onus is now on Paul Ryan to effectively serve as an ambassador to, and for, America’s young people in a way no other candidate has been able to do heretofore to help the Romney-Ryan ticket cross the finish line first.