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Will a Generational Divide Define 2012 Election?

November 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
With the 2012 presidential election a year away, the Pew Research Center examines the state of the American electorate and the divisions that fall along age lines. Judy Woodruff reports.
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MARGARET WARNER: Now to politics.

With the presidential election a year away, the Pew Research Center has taken a look at the state of the American electorate, and its divisions along age lines. It is the most pronounced generation gap in decades.

Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the past few national elections, younger people have voted notably more Democratic than other age groups, while older voters have leaned reliably more Republican.

Pew’s president, Andy Kohut, says this generational divide promises to be even more dramatic this time around.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: There are huge value differences between the youngest and oldest voters in the country that almost seem baked in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The so-called millennial generation, voters 18 to 30, still like President Obama more than any other age group. But just half say they approve of the job he is doing, down 24 points from when he took office.

ANDREW KOHUT: The millennials gave Obama his biggest margin, over 20 percentage points. And the margin now is lower, but, more importantly than the actual margin, their level of engagement is much lower than it was four years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This should worry Democrats like strategist Maria Cardona, who says young people are vital to President Obama’s re-election.

MARIA CARDONA, Democratic strategist: Millennials are going to have a tremendous influence in this election. You are going to see President Obama and Democrats and the White House continue to speak specifically to them about the issues that they care most.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, the Obama re-election campaign is rolling out a new initiative, using social media to court young potential voters on college campuses.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You’re our new generation of leaders, and we’re stronger together than we could ever be on our own. So let’s do this. Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican strategist Terry Holt agrees that millennials are critical to Obama’s chances.

TERRY HOLT, Republican strategist: If they don’t turn out in the numbers that they did in the 2008 race, President Obama probably can’t be elected. The problem that President Obama has with that age group in particular is that they came into the election process with sky-high expectations. They were essentially promised hope and change and a lot of things that they then poured their own hopes into.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if young people are increasingly apathetic, says Pew’s Kohut:

ANDREW KOHUT: Among older people, the numbers are just the reverse. Older people are more engaged than they were four years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many Americans are angry with government, and seniors especially so. Just 16 percent of seniors say they can trust the government all or most of the time, while 26 percent of millennials say they do.

In fact, seniors are slightly more comfortable economically than other generations. Middle-aged people have been particularly hard-hit by the recession, says Kohut.

ANDREW KOHUT: Boomers, 54 percent say their financial situation is worse off than it had been prior to the recession, higher than any other age group. Many of them think they’re going to have to put off retirement, Social Security is not going to be there.

This really has to be a troublesome set of statistics for the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Democratic strategist Cardona says, regardless of age, the frustration people are feeling comes back to one thing.

MARIA CARDONA: Well, I think that the drop of support that we have seen in most of the polls for President Obama comes from a frustration of Americans that spans the economic and the political spectrum about how Washington is not doing anything in the face of a struggling economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Pew report shows the economy is the dominant issue in every age group but one.

ANDREW KOHUT: Among older people, among these seniors, it’s as often Social Security as it is the economy. And that is one of the fissures in the situation with respect to the Republican grip among senior voters, because these older people are very inclined to look at Social Security, and it’s the only issue in which they don’t favor the Republicans clearly over the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an issue playing out in the run-up to the election, as underscored by presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: I believe in Social Security. There are tens of millions of Americans who rely upon Social Security to meet their needs. I want to protect it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this recent AARP ad:

MAN: We are 50 million seniors who earned our benefits. And you will be hearing from us today and on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican strategist Terry Holt says this presents a challenge for his party.

TERRY HOLT: The dichotomy with senior voters is that, while we connect very well with them on fiscal issues and on values issues, with entitlement reform, like Social Security and Medicare, seniors are afraid that the government is going to hurt them somehow.

So, Republicans have to reach out and appeal to seniors, and at the same time give them assurances that they’re not going to privatize Social Security, that they’re not going to gut Medicare. And that’s the challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pew’s Andy Kohut says one more factor when comparing age groups is race.

ANDREW KOHUT: There’s a huge racial difference between young Americans and older Americans.

Only 59 percent of the so-called millennials, the younger people, are white non-Hispanics. You go to the older group, and it’s 90 percent white non-Hispanics. Older people look at the changing face of America and say, is this, all of these Latinos and Asians and immigrants, and the way the country is changing a good thing? And few of them say — relatively few a say good thing.

The younger people look at these changes and say, of course it’s a good thing. That’s us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maria Cardona says the growth of the Latina population presents a political opportunity.

MARIA CARDONA: The one thing that I will tell you will never help is the fearmongering that happens on behalf of the Republican Party. And, frankly, the Tea Party has been very engaged in this, where they talk about — quote, unquote — “illegals,” where they talk about anchor babies, where they talk about electrifying the border fence, even if it is a joke, as Herman Cain mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican strategist Terry Holt doesn’t disagree.

TERRY HOLT: The Republican Party has policies that should appeal to Hispanic voters. Low-tax — low-tax initiatives, control of government spending, conservative social values, all of those things appeal to Hispanic voters. But we haven’t done a good job of connecting with them. And if we don’t find a way to have a different conversation about immigration, then we’re cutting our own throats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are about 16 million new potential voters who were too young to vote in the last presidential election. Half of them are now registered. If turnout for voters under 30 mirrors that of 2008, millennials could make up one-fourth of voters in the 2012 election.