Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Walter Shapiro - Why is Barack Obama now electable?

Interesting article over at Salon, by Walter Shapiro - Why is Barack Obama now electable?

Why is Barack Obama now electable?

From the youth vote to Sarah Palin's outdated embrace of the rural mystique, Salon's panel of demographers and consumer trend experts talks about how America is changing.

Editor's note: Listen to a podcast of this conversation here.

By Walter Shapiro

Oct. 21, 2008 | Cable TV and newspaper Op-Ed pages are full of pundits and campaign strategists using the latest election polls to opine glibly on the mood of America. Bored with this kind of bloviating, Salon decided to do the exact opposite — and use the mood of America as a way to generalize about the election. We assembled three leading demographers and trend analysts to talk about which major nonpolitical factors are shaping the electoral environment — from population shifts to major changes in public attitudes. We asked them about the state of America on the eve of one of the most epochal elections in modern history.

Demographer Cheryl Russell is the former editor in chief of American Demographics magazine, the editorial director of New Strategist Publications and the author of the just-published "Bet You Didn't Know: Hundreds of Intriguing Facts About Living in the USA."

Consumer-behavior guru Ann Clurman is the executive vice president for trends and futures consulting at the Futures Company, the firm produced by the merger of two other forecasting firms, Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich. She is the coauthor of the 2007 book "Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today ... and They're Just Getting Started."

Peter Francese, who founded American Demographics magazine, is an expert on demographics and consumer marketing. He serves as demographic trends analyst for the advertising agency Oglivy & Mather.

I spoke with Francese, Clurman and Russell by phone. The following transcript of the conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

—Walter Shapiro

Salon: Welcome to you all. The whole idea of this conversation is, instead of generalizing about the country from the election, we have brought together three demographics experts and trend analysts to talk about how to generalize about the election from what they know about the country.

So where to start? Leaving the Wall Street meltdown aside for a few minutes, how would each of you say the country was different than it was four years ago?

Peter Francese: My feeling is what's different than four years ago, and it's only a little bit different, is the continuing concentration of income at the top of the income scale. Before the financial meltdown, there was enormous concentration of income in the top 20 percent, top 10 percent, top 5 percent of the income scale. And that distorted the picture of really what America is when the top 20 percent of households in America take home half of all the income earned. And I think there's been an increasing bitterness and anger about that, but I do think that the top 20 percent has suffered rather mightily over the last several weeks.

Salon: I want to come back to that in a second because I want to talk about how life has changed in the last four to six weeks because of the financial meltdown. But I was just curious, Ann and Cheryl, what leaps out at you about how the country has been changing in the last four years?

Ann Clurman: There has been a very well-known shift in power from marketers to consumers. Consumers have been really good at celebrating how smart they are, how empowered they are. We've been picking that up for at least a decade. What I think is really significant is what we're calling "personal authenticity." And what that was, that kind of reached a critical mass in 2004, it was a coming together of a number of values and trends that we described as consumers really working on internal clarity of their values. Not only were they kind of trying to understand what was really important to them, they began to develop the courage to act on [those things]. And part of that meant moving out of your comfort zone — and I think that is very important to what's happening today. But also, this desire to get life right became a passion. What we're seeing today is a massive shift beginning to surface and that shift is not just being caused the last four or five weeks.

Salon: I'm curious what Cheryl has to say to the same question.

Cheryl Russell: I want to put a word in here for the demographics. There is this slow, inexorable change in our country towards much greater diversity. You might not be able to bank on the stock market, but you can bank on demographic change. And that change means that the United States is going to be a minority majority country according to the Census Bureau by 2042. And what's happening is that every year we become more and more diverse and the voices of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities are becoming more powerful. And in this election I think this is playing out big time.

Francese: That is an absolute fact.

Salon: I’m going to put the financial crisis on hold for a minute and ask, Could the America of 2000 or 2004 embrace a Barack Obama for president? Was America ready four or eight years ago for a mixed-race presidential candidate or was it just that Obama happened to come along in 2008? Is he a lagging indicator that America is changing or is this the first year where it’s possible to imagine someone like Barack Obama being elected?

Clurman: Let me take the first crack at that. I know that demographics are critical and I'm going to leave that to the other experts. I've been thinking long and hard about this and my answer would be no, it wouldn't have happened in 2000 and 2004. First of all, critically, the changing demographics. Secondly, we have to look at the last eight years. I don't know what word you want to use for it — I was going to say "heinous." Thirdly, the youth vote. That's a huge demographic shift, the coming of age of the millennials or the Gen Ys, or whatever you want to call them, and their feelings about all of this. I also want to go back to what I said earlier, which is, people are much more willing to move outside their comfort zone. And while I do believe unfortunately a lot of people are still uncomfortable with Sen. Obama's candidacy, they're going to go for him because they understand it's time to change the discussion.

One of the things we are telling our marketing clients and one of the things I think Obama's people understand really well, is stop talking about what doesn't work, stop yearning for a time that was, stop talking about, "Gee, I wish we could still do this." With the new realities, we can't. That's old language. The language we need to use is changing the discussion entirely and to ask new questions. We tell everyone, "Think outside the box," and my argument would be, "Change the box in general." Apropos of this, I just got one of those breaking news e-mails, and apparently Advertising Age has named Obama the marketer of the year.

Russell: I agree with Ann. The times create a candidate. What we see playing out in the election today, it's really a long-simmering battle between the generations. It's the battle between the way things used to be and the way things will be. And everybody thought for a long time that the boomers would be the warriors in this battle. But in fact, boomers are actually, or many boomers are, conservative, so that battle never really played out fully. But now, it is their children, the millennial generation, that is on the front line of this battle.
Read the rest of the discussion.

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