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

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.

The reason this matters so much is the significant role that older voters play in midterm elections. Four years ago, seniors made up 19 percent of the midterm electorate. That fell to 15 percent of the electorate in 2008 as more younger and middle-aged voters came out.

That difference, however, was typical, according to exit polls. Since 1980, the share of the electorate 65 and older was an average of five percentage points higher at each midterm than at the presidential election preceding it.

A separate analysis issued Tuesday by AARP, which lobbies on behalf of seniors, concluded that the share of the electorate older than 45 has been growing as the population ages. The study says the gap between the share of voters older and younger than 45 has been growing and estimates that almost two in three voters next month will be older than 45.

Shaping the electorate is an important part of midterm election strategy, which is why the president's team is so focused on those 2008 first-time or newer voters younger than 30. Team members know that by boosting turnout among these voters somewhat higher than normal in a midterm, they could save House and Senate seats. But they may be pushing a rock uphill, given the normal generational swings in midterms.

Where this could have its biggest impact is in states with competitive races that also have a higher share of older voters.

One of those is Florida, where Republicans are looking to hold onto a Senate seat, avoid a Democratic pickup of the governor's mansion and have targeted four Democratic-held House seats. Another is Pennsylvania, where Republicans could pick up a Senate seat, the governor's mansion and where eight Democratic House seats are in play compared with just one GOP-held seat.

For the past two elections, older voters split their votes almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats in House contests, and they voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by an eight-point margin in 2008. Unless Obama can alter the direction of this election, older voters appear likely to tip toward the Republicans this year.

balzd@washpost.com cohenj@washpost.com

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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