Trying too hard to be cool? The challenge of winning over young voters

Try winning the young demographic in a more intelligent way, and not through publicity stunts which create a stir for five minutes and are forgotten

In 1992, the Democratic candidate for the US Presidential elections was an attractive 46-year-old man with sandy hair and a soft southern drawl. When Bill Clinton stepped on to the world stage, the media immediately recognised his charisma. He also had that something else, that je ne sais quoi which is often difficult to pinpoint and almost impossible to achieve if one does not innately have it: the elusive ‘cool’ factor. 

In an iconic moment on the Arsenio Hall show (a popular comedian/talk show host at the time), Clinton put on a pair of shades and played the saxophone. Many have credited that moment with the candidate winning over a lot of young voters, and possibly the election. It reminded many political analysts of the way John F. Kennedy had managed to connect so well with viewers in the first ever televised debate he faced against Richard Nixon in the 60s. (The fact that both Clinton and Kennedy ultimately were too charming for their own good when it came to the ladies, is another story). 

The ‘cool’ factor, if it could be bottled and sold, would make someone a lot of money precisely because it is such an intangible concept. It is not easy to explain, but much like the famous phrase coined by a Supreme Court judge to describe how one can define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”. 

Being cool is effortless confidence, it is being at ease with one’s own body, it means entering a room without feeling intimidated, and not caring whether one fits in with the crowd. Someone who is cool does not try too hard, they do not try to be something they are not, but are comfortable just being themselves. They do not emulate others; they are individuals.  

Of course there is nothing tragically wrong with lacking the cool gene; in fact, I would say the majority of people do not possess it, which is fine. The tricky part is when the latter decide to do things to make themselves appear cool, and end up making things even worse for themselves. The immediate example which springs to mind is when the socially awkward Alfred Sant sat down in 1998 and randomly bashed on some drums during a political activity. Cringeworthy is an understatement because it was so completely not ‘him’ and whoever suggested that stunt should have been fired on the spot because it only set up him for more ridicule (at a time when mercilessly mocking Sant, no matter what he did, had become a national past time). 

I was reminded of that unfortunate drums episode when I saw the Tik Tok video of Opposition leader Bernard Grech in a ‘dance’ routine with a few teenagers. Now I realise he is trying to ‘get down with the kids’ by using their medium of choice, but frankly, seeing him there in his white shirt sleeves and dark suit trousers hitched up to his middle-aged spread, it was as embarrassing as seeing your Dad get up and doing a ‘Dad Dance’ at a teenage party with your friends. Those office blinds billowing in the background inside what is obviously some meeting room at Stamperija, did not help. To be honest, even the teens in the video did not appear entirely convinced themselves about the whole thing.  

I have read countless comments by people falling all over themselves trying to tell us it was a good idea; that it shows Grech has a sense of humour; that it makes him relatable to young voters etc etc. But I really think these Grech supporters doth protest too much. Would they have been as forgiving and tolerant if Adrian Delia were still the PN leader and had tried something like that? I can easily imagine how the whole thing would have been met with scathing insults, cruel laughter and viral memes. I guess everyone tends to look at their favourite politician through benevolent, rose-tinted glasses, huh? 

The only politician I can think of who could get away with something like that is Obama, a man who exudes ‘cool’. When he rolled up his shirtsleeves to play basketball in front of the cameras, he could get away with it because it was not just a stunt – he had always loved playing basketball. He also had an intuitive feel for the zeitgeist which was always just right. When he posed with the US gymnast, McKayla Maroney, who had a trademark “I’m not impressed” scowl, and pulled the same face, the public lapped it up. These things cannot be manufactured or forced, because when they do, they inevitably fail. 

There is obviously nothing wrong in trying out new things to make a politician electable, and Bernard Grech, as the newcomer, needs all the help he can get. But I still think that trying to win the young demographic has to be done in a more intelligent way, and not through publicity stunts which create a stir for five minutes and are forgotten. Is anyone doing market research on what issues are of the greatest concern to this age group or are campaigns going to be based on the latest social media fad? While I am all for communicating with the electorate in their ‘language’, getting out the vote will take more than Tik Tok. 

Which brings me to another point; it is patently clear that both parties seem to be on a mission to weed out all the veteran politicians in favour of fresh, young faces. The PN, in particular has a reputation for being mired in the past, with some of their MPs having served in the House for several legislatures, which is often reflected in the way certain hot issues are debated. A controversial suggestion proposed by PN MP Claudio Grech is that sitting MPs who have served for four terms or more should step down to make way for a fresh crop of young candidates. I am of two minds about this. 

On the one hand, I can understand why the older politicians are reluctant to go: no one feels happy about being told they are ‘too old’ and that their career is over. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said about knowing when to bow out graciously and gracefully after having served for such a long time, which is why it is always recommended to cultivate other interests and hobbies besides work (no matter what field one is in). 

However, I also have my reservations about filling our Parliament with politicians who are too young, and who, in the case of the Government, end up being appointed to posts where maturity and experience are required. One also needs to consider the electorate: will the older generation be comfortable voting for someone who is very young? Will they be alienated from the party if they do not see any familiar, trusted faces?

I think the PN has to be careful not to fall into the same trap which the Labour party fell into where anyone young or young-ish was pushed and promoted at the expense of those over a certain age. Some have risen to the occasion but others have not. There is a lot to be said for experience and the political savvy which can only come with age, and a delicate balance of both youth and maturity needs to be achieved in order to be a true reflection of the population which, after all, is made up of all age groups. I think that now, more than ever, we do not want frippery and gimmicks, but what in Maltese we call ‘serjetà’ – a certain gravitas in those who are making the decisions in the country. 

Political parties are facing an uphill battle in trying to convince a disillusioned nation which has been put through the wringer these last few years that they are the better option. As we are regaled with daily news about corruption in high places, a too cosy, insidious relationship with the business sector, and the betrayal of so many electoral promises, the trust in the political class is at an all-time low. 

Perhaps that is why they are pinning their hopes on first-time voters and why the voting age was lowered to 16 in the belief that this cohort is not yet jaded and can be manipulated. However, it must also be remembered that this age bracket is also easily distracted, gets bored very quickly and is always looking for something which is more exciting. How that will play out during an election campaign is anyone’s guess; I just hope we can be spared the painful sight of more politicians trying too hard to be cool.