What do Sen. Barack Obama and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have in commonbesides their deep desire to win your vote? OK, not much. But they both were born in the early 1960s. That puts them in a generation that could make a big difference in the outcome of the Nov. 4 election.
Obama, born in 1961, and Palin, in 1964, are Baby Boomers. That's generally defined as the generation born in the 1946-to-1965 birth bulge that followed World War II.
But that's not saying enough. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George W. Bush are also Boomers. But they're old Boomers.
Obama and Palin are late Boomers, the Overlooked Generation. Or, as Los Angeles-based cultural historian Jonathan Pontell calls them, "Generation Jones." Pontell, who published a book with that title a few years ago, argues that Generation Jones doesn't get the attention it deserves.
The odd title of his book comes from "keeping up with the Joneses," which refers to the one thing late Boomers became known for quite early: conspicuous consumption. Pontell argues that they also have an influence on elections that, to borrow one of Bush's locutions, has been vastly "misunderestimated."
Despite their low profile, members of Generation Jones tend to be less partisan and wider swing voters than other generations. They probably made the difference for Bush's 2004 re-election and could do the same for either John McCain or their fellow Joneser, Obama.
Pontell's theory received an important boost from the polls four years ago. That's when the Rasmussen Report pollsters found Generation Jones women, then ages 40 to 49, "vacillated more than other generations of women between John Kerry and George W. Bush."
It was the older Boomer women who decided early for Bush and stuck with him. Only in the final weeks and days of the campaign did younger Boomers join the older ones in voting for Bush, putting him over the top. That's according to Pontell and Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker. The 12 biggest battleground states, Coker found, would have gone to Kerry without the Jonesers.
"I think Generation Jones is the most Republican-leaning generation in the electorate," said Pontell, a Southern Californian, in a telephone interview. "We were witnesses, not participantswide-eyed, not tie-dyedin the 1960s."
What does this mean for 2008? A lot, especially if the poll numbers tighten, making the still-undecided independent swing voters even more important.
A mid-October Associated Press poll, for example, found middle-age white women to be more undecided yet also more "persuadable" than any other age bracket. Only about 55 percent had made up their minds about who they were going to vote for and they were almost evenly split between McCain and Obama.
Black and Hispanic women, by contrast, backed Obama by the same heavy proportions as minority men. White men mostly favored McCain and have voted mostly Republican in every presidential election since 1964.
Now 42 to 54 years old, Generation Jonesers are as likely to remember Ronald Reagan as an important influence on their lives, just as older Boomers remember John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr.
That could explain why Obama seemed almost bemused by Sen. Hillary Clinton's heated attacks on the mild compliment Obama paid to President Reagan's leadership abilities during the primaries. Yet, Obama's cool-headed outreach to moderates probably helped him win over a younger generation that tends to be looking for answers more than ideology.
Similarly, McCain's attacks against Obama as a "socialist," a "pal" of a "terrorist" and even a "celebrity," galvanize core conservatives but show little effect in reaching swing voters, who make up about half of Generation Jones.
The same is true for the 1950s-style conservative values that Palin has been pushing.
"I think Gen Jones women swing so much because they are torn between gender and generation more than older Boomer women are," Pontell told me. "In 2004, you may recall, 'moral values' showed up in exit polls pulling Generation Jones, in particular, toward Bush. But in this cycle, the economy and the sense of catastrophe unfolding makes more of them look to the Democrats."
That's partly because Generation Jones has become the latest "sandwich generation," pinched between the demands of growing children and the care of aging parents, even before the economy took a dive.
McCain, by contrast, has been promoting "Joe the Plumber," an Ohio man who bashes the idea that people who can afford to pay a higher tax rate should do so, even if the money is used to help all Americans.
Maybe, as my parents used to say, he'll feel differently when he's older.