Conventional political wisdom dictates that when the economy is strong the incumbent president is reelected, but when it's weak he is voted out of office. A classic example of this, of course, was 1992, when the American electorate's displeasure with the early '90s recession catapulted Bill Clinton to victory and George Bush to an early retirement.
However, recent polls of 18- to 29-year-old voters suggest that in 1996, at least, nothing could be further from the case. According to one national survey conducted this month for MTV News by the Garin-Hart Research Group, more Americans under 30 think the economic situation for people in their age group has gotten worse rather than better over the past four years.
This should bode well for Bob Dole, right? Hardly. The same survey simultaneously shows President Clinton trouncing Mr. Dole among this age group by 20 points, nearly double the margin he led by in April and March.
Why isn't Dole reaping the rewards of this economic disenchantment among the young? The answer is that today's younger Americans, though often frustrated with the current economic climate (which, in fairness, has hit them harder than any other age group), realize that their situation is not permanent. Such a realization is no doubt reflected in still other findings contained in the Garin-Hart survey: A full three-quarters of Americans under 30 think they will do at least as well as their parents, with most saying they expect to do better. (Interestingly, this was the very marker of success articulated by Mr. Clinton to younger voters when he ran for president in 1992).
All of which puts the onus on Dole to do more than pin the blame on Clinton. That won't work; the polls make this clear. The economy is generally strong, and among those for whom it's a little weaker (namely, the young) the sense is that things will eventually get better. But how long this will take is another question entirely. And that's where Dole must find his opening. He must give younger voters a tangible reason to believe four years of Dole leadership will quicken the pace of economic recovery.
IN an updated edition of his autobiography, released just last week, Dole announced that he will soon offer his own version of a flat tax, one that would drop most taxes on families earning less than $30,000 and cut capital gains taxes for investors. When you consider that tax reform may not only stimulate the economy but is indeed a top priority among 18- to 29-year-old voters, such a proposal would seem a good place for Dole to start. For start somewhere he must; the '96 clock is ticking.
*Alex Abrams, political analyst for MTV News, is co-author of "Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today's America, the Right Place at the Wrong Time."