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New Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll highlights Democrats' problem with senior voters

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By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 8:19 PM

President Obama and his party have been lavishing attention on young voters, investing millions in an effort to reenergize a group that helped elect him two years ago. Obama talked recently to Rolling Stone, and he met Tuesday with students at George Washington University. On Thursday, he plans to appear at a "youth town hall" on MTV.

But a similar investment in older voters - especially those not particularly motivated to go to the polls - might have been just as valuable.

Among seniors who say that they are very interested in the upcoming election, 51 percent prefer to see Republicans in control of the next Congress while 40 percent say they want Democrats in charge. Among all other seniors, it's about the reverse: 51 percent say they want Democrats to control Congress and 37 percent say Republicans.

The findings come from a major survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The survey measured attitudes about the federal government and included some questions about the upcoming elections.

The findings show a generational divide working against the Democrats this fall. If the midterms are in part a referendum on the size, scope and effectiveness of the federal government, older voters appear poised to deliver a rebuke to the Obama administration.

Older voters - Democrats, Republicans or independents - are more pessimistic in their assessments of Washington's performance than are younger voters. Based on historical voting patterns, they are also more likely to turn out in November - a potentially toxic combination for the Democrats.

Older voters say the federal government is not focused on the right priorities. They think Washington is working less well these days that it did in the past.

Three in 10 older voters give the government a failing grade, compared with 8 percent of voters younger than 30. Older voters also are much harsher in their judgments than they were a decade ago, when just more than one in 10 gave Washington an F.

On the economy, the issue that dominates the election, Obama also needs to make a more persuasive case than he has with some older voters. Majorities of Democrats of all ages give Obama credit for helping to improve the economy. But older Republicans and, crucially, older independents are more likely than their younger counterparts to say the administration has made things worse.

Those are some of the differences between older and younger voters. But equally important are the views of those older voters who are paying close attention to this election compared to older voters who are not.

Fully 40 percent of seniors who are most interested in the campaign say the federal government has a big and negative effect on their lives. That's about double the proportion of the older voters who are not so tuned in. More than half of these interested older voters say the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedom, twice the percentage of those who aren't so interested.

Finally, older voters who say they're very interested in the election are significantly more focused on the deficit than are other seniors. Just more than three in five say avoiding a big deficit is more important than spending more money to create jobs.


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