In a Changing Corner of Pa., a Glimpse of Obama's Age Problem

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

LANCASTER, Pa. -- When Gene Rutherford, 65, tries to make sense of the meteoric rise of Barack Obama, and the rampant enthusiasm for him among younger Americans, he thinks of the local mall, where as director of operations he often deals with teenagers.

"Kids today have been given everything they want, and don't have to work for it. They have no respect for authority," said Rutherford, standing at the bar at the Elks lodge here. "They'll make remarks right to the face of the [mall] cops. I get to the point where I want to do something," he said, cocking a fist as if to threaten a punch. "But the police say we can't, that we just have to stand there." It makes him worry for the country. "I see it going the Roman way."

If the senator from Illinois is going to achieve his goal of bridging the nation's divides, he is going to have to overcome a generation gap with older voters unlike any such split a Democratic presidential nominee has faced in years.

Even as younger voters are showing signs of breaking with years of lackluster turnout to support him, Obama is facing singular resistance from voters over 65. That age group turns out at the highest rate on Election Day and is disproportionately represented in the swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania; Bill Clinton and Al Gore both relied on it in winning the Democrats' only popular-vote majorities of the past two decades.

With polls showing Obama dominating among those under 40 and running even among middle-aged voters, Republican John McCain's lead among those 65 and older is the main reason he remains close overall. His margin is largest among older white voters without a college education, accounting for much of Obama's problem with the white working class.

Obama has tried to compensate by proposing a tax cut for seniors, which was criticized by economists. But as Rutherford's comments suggest and surveys show, Obama's challenge goes deeper than a new proposal or two -- an approach that worked for Clinton against George H.W. Bush and Robert J. Dole.

Surveys and interviews suggest that older voters think McCain, who will turn 72 this month, comes far closer than Obama, 47, to sharing their values and outlook on the world and on the changes in the nation over the past half-century.

"The older people just don't see Obama in these glowing terms," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "For older voters, a lot of the reservations really have to do with this experience factor, while younger voters see in Obama something much closer to themselves."

The generational split is on display in Lancaster, a city of 55,000 in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, a once solidly Republican area that is growing more mixed with an influx of Hispanic immigrants and urban professionals.

Trying to sustain itself amid the city's changes is the local branch of the Elks Club, the 140-year-old fraternal organization, which like similar groups is losing members. Rutherford, who served two terms as his branch's "exalted leader," sees a link between falling membership -- from 1,200 a decade ago to 680 today -- and Obama's popularity among local youths.

"Kids want to think for themselves -- they don't care what Mom and Dad say," said Rutherford, a burly man with a Manhattan in his hand. "This was a Republican stronghold, but it's changing very quickly because it's 'Mom and Dad, you're Republican, so I ain't ever going to be one of them.' "

Rutherford's pessimism does not extend to his own four children, three of whom followed him and his father and grandfather in becoming Elks. He presumes that they lean Republican, as he does, though he votes Democratic now and then and wishes former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a Republican who supports abortion rights, were the GOP nominee.

He worries about McCain's ability as a candidate but has deep respect for what he endured in Vietnam. Rutherford received draft deferments while enrolled as an electrician's apprentice, and that has bothered him ever since. "It was not the greatest decision in my life," he said. "An awful lot of my friends didn't come back or didn't come back in the best mental condition. . . . I felt that I'd let them down."

While he has spent his whole life in Lancaster, he says he is more worldly than many of his contemporaries there. He and his girlfriend are thinking about investing in real estate in Baltimore, and he prided himself on putting the lodge's newsletter online, despite complaints from older members. Nonetheless, he has trouble fathoming as president someone who, as he sees it, is not qualified. "It's kind of a tried-and-true American versus an unknown," he said.

The presidential race has featured generational contrasts before, most recently when Clinton, a baby boomer, took on World War II veterans in Bush and Dole. But Clinton fared well with older voters because of the strong support for programs such as Social Security among the seniors who predominated in the 1990s, many of whom grew up during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In 2000, Gore narrowly won voters over 65 after echoing Clinton's arguments about Social Security. In 2004, John F. Kerry lost voters over 65 by five percentage points to President Bush, and he lacked the huge edge that Obama holds in polls with younger voters to make up the difference.

Edward F. Coyle, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance of Retired Americans, said Obama holds the traditional Democratic edge on issues such as pensions, but is lagging with seniors because his campaign became so identified with younger voters during the primaries, as older ones gravitated toward Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"There was never a lot of discussion about the issues we work on, and he wasn't working with older communities to get out their vote," Coyle said. "He's pretty much unknown on these issues as a result, and has a lot of work to do."

Demographers have for decades noted a conservative bent in McCain's age cohort, roughly those born between 1930 and 1945, who came of age in the relatively serene Eisenhower years. Even as their views have changed over time, members of this generation have remained notably more conservative than those who followed.

A Pew survey last year found that the proportion of those born before 1946 who approve of interracial dating had increased from 36 percent to 65 percent since 1987, but that that rate remained well below that for the generations that followed. Across a range of other social issues, such as women's rights and gay rights, the views of all post-1946 generations clustered together, while pre-baby boomers stood apart as more conservative.

And this year, older voters find themselves presented with a choice that illuminates societal shifts.

McCain hails from an America that exalted service to country, and he is the scion of a military family who endured five years in enemy captivity and who preaches a mantra of personal honor and of the nation over the individual -- "Country First," as his campaign slogan declares. His wife is conspicuously reserved at his side; he does not communicate by e-mail and only recently learned to use the Internet; even his roguish sense of humor carries echoes of the more chauvinistic 1950s of his youth.

Obama's embodiment of a newer America begins but hardly ends with the fact that he would be the first black president. In a country where people liked to know where you were from, Obama lacks a ready answer -- he is part Hawaii, part Kansas, part Chicago. In a recent speech in Berlin, he declared himself a "citizen of the world."

He came of age after the draft and was shaped by the modern meritocracies of premier universities. While McCain has served 26 years in Congress and has run for president before, Obama contends with the perception that he has shot to the top without putting in his time. He and his wife exemplify the contemporary marriage of professional equals. His campaign thrives on the Internet and is very much about his appeal as an individual, with iconic posters and YouTube compilations. If he shares anything with the America of yore, it is that he likes to smoke cigarettes.

Faced with this divide, older voters have made their preference for McCain clear -- even though they are more likely than younger ones to express concern about his age, possibly because they are aware of the challenges they face as they grow older. In April, a Pew survey found that more than 70 percent of voters under 50 and 67 percent between 50 and 64 found Obama inspiring, but that only 53 percent over age 65 did.

McCain has exploited this gap with his ads, which frame Obama as a mere pop idol in a way meant to incite resentment against celebrity youth culture. But McCain will need those attacks to resonate not just among older voters but also among the middle-aged, given how much he lags among the youngest voters, the "millennial generation" that is taking shape as even more Democratic-leaning than young voters before them. And notably, Obama is holding his own among baby boomers, despite casting himself as the one who can move politics beyond their culture clashes.

Here again, there are clues among the Lancaster Elks, who occupy a handsome 19th-century brick edifice downtown, with stained glass, elegant wall carvings and stuffed elk busts decorating the bar where hot dinners are served three times a week. The current branch leader is Tim Patches, 52, a baby boomer who leans Republican but is still undecided about this election and generally possesses a worldview far different from Rutherford's.

Patches, a real estate broker, takes a kindly view of today's young people, saying he has been encouraged by his success in getting some new members in their 20s and 30s after a long dry spell. At first, he worried they were joining for the perks: four duckpin bowling lanes with automated pin-spotters, cheap beer. But they have gotten involved in the club's service efforts, which, along with his son's decision to join the Marines last year, has made him think "this younger generation is very volunteer-oriented, very patriotic."

He is sanguine about the new immigrants in town. "I like change. I know a lot of people fear it, but how do you move on in an organization or business without it?" he said. He is only slightly more grudging about gay rights. "When it comes to constitutional law, it doesn't matter how I morally think," he said. "If we're all protected, whether I like it or not is irrelevant."

Patches traces his looser view to his upbringing in the 1960s and '70s, when he watched on TV as the country lurched through the Vietnam War and the urban riots, an era that he said knocked loose assumptions and scrambled partisan definitions.

"Then you had the computer, all the tech advances," he said. "When I grew up, you were a Republican or Democrat and neither shall be the other. Now . . . not everything needs to be liberal or conservative. You've got an opportunity to actually sit back and think."

Not that he tolerates everything. Flag burning, for instance, still upsets him. But he thought it was silly when Obama came under fire for not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. "I mean, come on. If you're going to nitpick everyone who wants to be president, you're going to run out of everyone, and then you'll have to come to me," he said.

"And that would be a problem. Because I'd want duckpin bowling at the White House."

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