This is the election of the "bookend coalition." Previous presidential elections were decided by soccer moms, NASCAR dads and others categorized by clever phrases coined by the talking heads. But 2012 belongs to two demographic groups that rarely have much in common: voters younger than 30 and voters in their 50s and 60s.
The Obama economy galvanized them. Conservative groups -- such as the Leadership Institute, the political training organization where I work -- are training them.
The first wave of new political activists came with the Tea Party. We saw the rise of older voters in Tax Day protests and electrifying town-hall debates on Obamacare. One-fifth of Tea Party supporters are older than 65, according to a 2010 Gallup poll; more than half are older than 50. You probably didn't expect to see that age group holding rallies, waving protest signs and filling the U.S. Capitol lawn, but they did. They raised their voices against massive bailouts and a government takeover of our health care system -- and the whole country paid attention.
This year, you probably don't expect to see young voters turning away from the left and President Obama, but they will. The Millennials, aged 18 to 29, are at the beginning of their careers. It should be a hopeful time for them. Instead, these young Americans face unemployment or underemployment, trading in apartments for life at home again with mom and dad. They're drowning in $1 trillion of student loan debt for degrees that haven't paid off: The number of college-educated waiters and waitresses in their age group has grown 81 percent in the past 10 years.
Mr. Obama promised his election would usher in a sound economy, an end of bitter partisanship and a healthy dose of hope and change. He delivered change at the cost of adding $5 trillion to our national debt, a viciously divisive political climate (thanks, in no small part, to his singling out of his political enemies) and crippling economic conditions that keep Millennials unemployed or underemployed.
Americans in their 50s and 60s -- the tail end of the baby boom -- are reeling from the Obama economy, too. They should be at the apex of their careers, enjoying their maximum earning power before they settle into the golden years of retirement. Instead, they face layoffs, cutbacks, gutted stock portfolios, bankrupt pension funds, higher mortgage payments coupled with lower home values, and children who can't pay their rent without mom or dad -- let alone find a job. Retirement has become a distant horizon or a dreadfully uncomfortable near future.
What do these boomers get in return? Mr. Obama asks them to pay their "fair share" (i.e. more and more). Then his administration proposes a new law or regulation that increases the cost of their energy, housing, health care or food.
Policies just like that sparked a flame of citizen protests in 2009 and a wildfire in the 2010 midterm elections. As long as liberal politicians like Mr. Obama overreach and underperform in the same fashion, they'll fan the fire.
I've heard the stories of the bookend coalition firsthand in my experience training conservative activists at the Leadership Institute. Many come to the institute as political rookies. They want to do something; they just don't know what the best "something" is or how to go about doing it. After an afternoon or a week at the institute, depending on the course, they head off with pages full of notes, eager and even excited about their plans for influencing policy and politicians in their local, state and national government.
The bookend coalition members I've met are college freshmen and successful business leaders. They're stay-at-home moms and young professionals one to five years out of school. On paper, much divides the bookend coalition -- from age to income and everything in between. However, one thing unites them: a hunger for a strong economy, a robust jobs market, a stable, brighter future for themselves and their families, and the determination to help make them a reality.
The efforts of activists, right and left, shape our political landscape and frame our national discussion. Put bluntly, they determine the winners of political battles. That's why the bookend coalition is so important. These Americans, newly activated, can help transform their generations. When they become activists, they become leaders -- this year and for many years beyond.
As we say at the Leadership Institute, nothing moves in politics unless it's pushed. President Obama's economic policies are pushing the bookend generations of working Americans -- the Millennials and the late boomers -- into direct political action. Just see what happens when the bookend coalition mobilizes in November.
David Fenner is vice president of programs for the Leadership Institute.