Age Likely to Be Key Factor in Presidential Campaign

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Much has been made this year over the political divisions of race and gender. But age is as predictable a factor. That could be pivotal in the presidential election where 25 years separates the two major party candidates.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michelle Norris.

The primary phase of this presidential campaign focused largely on two factors - the gender and race of the candidates. As the general election begins, age could play an increasingly important role. Senator John McCain would be 72 when sworn in, Senator Barack Obama, 47, and that's the widest gap ever between Republican and Democratic nominees.

Voters tell pollsters age is not an issue, but polls find younger voters favor Obama while older voters tend to favor John McCain. We asked NPR's national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer, to talk to voters of all ages in Virginia, a place where this year's election could be very close.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Charlottesville is a beautiful town built around the University of Virginia with its graceful colonnaded buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. Like many university towns, Charlottesville has also become a magnet for retirees, offering rich cultural opportunities as well as a small-town feeling. We talked about the election at the town's senior center, which has lots of activities for so-called younger seniors, including classes in tai chi.

Mr. BRIAN McKENZIE (Tai Chi Instructor): Bring both fists in, nice and light, relax. Let your hands drop. Fly like a big bird.

WERTHEIMER: That was instructor Brian McKenzie. We gathered in a library lounge with some of the tai chi students and other seniors. Sheryl Kramer(ph) is a retired dental assistant. She is undecided, but feels she doesn't know Obama. He seems glib to her, while she does know McCain.

Ms. SHERYL KRAMER (Retired Dental Assistant): I like what I see. I think he's a good man. Of course, there's always the story of his involvement in the prison camp. He suffered dreadfully, we all know it. He knows what war is which I think is to his benefit because a lot of people declare war and have never been involved in a war. They have never seen people die.

WERTHEIMER: Mara Evans(ph), a retired medical technician, says she is deciding what to do after Hillary, and voting for McCain is a possibility.

Ms. MARA EVANS (Retired Medical Technician): I would have gone all the way for Hillary because she had the experience. She has done a lot in the past. She's worked hard. I would like to really see who they choose for the vice president. And that would have some bearing on my final decision.

WERTHEIMER: Hillary Clinton generally dominated among older voters in the primaries. A majority of voters over 65 might agree with Kramer or Evans. But some older voters are concerned about an older president. Paul Stit(ph) is retired, but still writing books and articles about vitamins, and he likes Obama's youth.

Mr. PAUL STIT (Writer): I think 46 is an ideal age. I started my own company at 38, and that's when you have the most vim and vigor and energy. I mean, the biggest mistake in the world would be to hire somebody like me as president at my age. I mean, that's a real big mistake. I mean, I'm just not up to the rigors of that kind of thing and I think I'm 10 times healthier that John McCain. He's got 1,400 pages of medical problems, you know, and I only have like three.

WERTHEIMER: Experience is a big factor from many older voters. But the Deanna Bowman(ph), who retired from State Farm Insurance, rejects that notion.

Ms. DEANNA BOWMAN (Retired Employee): I look at the Bush administration with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell. You don't have much more experience than that, and how much of a disaster they have been. I agree that as far as Obama's experience is concerned, it's truly still an unknown. But I'm ready to take the plunge with him.

WERTHEIMER: And that is something many younger voters are also doing. It's never hard to find young people in a college town. The Sorenson Center at UVA gathers college-age leaders from around the state for training.

Unidentified Man: I stand before you today to introduce Ms. Zia Chai(ph).

WERTHEIMER: The center's nonpartisan mission is to improve the quality of Virginia's political leadership. The summer session group we met has classes, field trips to Washington, and visiting lecturers.

Unidentified Man: Please join me in welcoming Ms. Zia Chai.

WERTHEIMER: These young people acknowledge the rock star excitement of Barack Obama, although some seemed embarrassed by it. Matthew Ridges(ph) is a student at William & Mary College and an Obama supporter.

Mr. MATTHEW RIDGES (Student): I have the opportunity to hear Barack Obama speak once and when he came down to the crowd after his speech the young woman next to me fainted.

WERTHEIMER: Fainted?

Mr. RIDGES: Fainted. I've never heard anything like that before.

WERTHEIMER: However, Matt Ridges backs Obama for essentially the same reason as some of our seniors do.

Mr. RIDGES: My whole set of teenage years, from 12 to 20, was Bush administration. And I'm not impressed at all. And I think we need to try something different.

WERTHEIMER: Experience doesn't matter much to Joanna Eppenberger(ph), also from William & Mary. She told us her world changed after 9/11. She was in junior high. She strongly backed the president then. Now, she wants a new kind of leadership.

Ms. JOANNA EPPENBERGER (Student): Obama seems fresh and new and that might be a factor because of his age, and McCain just (unintelligible). There's that -someone said that he can't really lift his arms and so he just - to me, he always seems kind of closed off and (unintelligible), that might be because he's that old.

WERTHEIMER: So you look at McCain and you think old?

Ms. EPPENBERGER: Yes, I do.

WERTHEIMER: Adria Van Hoosier(ph) of UVA sees a different light. She says it was precisely 9/11 which pushed her toward John McCain.

Ms. ADRIA VAN HOOSIER (Student): I felt like McCain's Vietnam War experience will better prepare him to handle another 9/11 if we were ever to have that tragedy again rather than Obama, who's only been on the Senate Committee pertaining to warfare.

WERTHEIMER: Obama is not part of their generation. But these students see him as much closer than McCain is. Matt Ogren(ph), a Virginian, who attends Duke University, says Obama won't re-fight old political wars.

Mr. MATT OGREN (Student): I think that a lot of Obama's appeal is he's from a younger generation that hasn't been caught up in re-fighting the Vietnam War or re-fighting women's rights and civil rights over and over. And I think that's what he means by change is that it's time for a new generation, it's time for an older guard to step aside and for young people who don't see those battles as that important and really want just pragmatic, good government.

WERTHEIMER: We also talked to students who are taking Obama's nomination very personally - hoping and expecting that it will change their lives. Nathaniel Kurtz(ph) is from Virginia. He's a student at Morehouse, a traditionally black college in Atlanta.

Mr. NATHANIEL KURTZ (Student): I see an opportunity for me to move up in the ranks for a (unintelligible) that has only been dominated by older white men for a few numbers of times. And now I see that that is now going to be changed. And I can't sit idly by and see this chance go by for my opportunity to come along too, (unintelligible) my life.

WERTHEIMER: As a young black man, Kurtz presents two groups who have been a little less likely to turn out to vote. Democrats hope that will change this year and it will make the party competitive in states like Virginia, which last voted Democratic for president in 1964.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington.

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Parsing the Generational Divide for Democrats

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR and Pew Research Center

Young Voters and the Democrats

Exit poll data from the Democratic primaries so far show that young voters (age 18-29) tend to vote much differently than their older counterparts (age 60 and older).

In states such as Virginia and Georgia, where the median age is 37 and 28, respectively, young voters supported Illinois Sen. Barack Obama over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin, helping him carry both states.

But in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton won big with the senior citizen vote: They overwhelming backed her over Obama, 2-to-1. In Pennsylvania, the median age is 40; in Ohio, it's 37.

Illinois Sen.. Barack Obama supporters i

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama supporters during a rally at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen.. Barack Obama supporters

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama supporters during a rally at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Young Voters and the General Election

A new report by the Pew Research Center shows a correlation between age and party affiliation.

According to a poll conducted between October 2007 and March 2008, 58 percent of voters under the age of 30 lean toward the Democratic Party — compared with 33 percent who identify as Republican. This represents a 14-point jump in Democratic support among young voters since the 2004 election.

Of course, young voters will only tip the scales if they turn out in heavy numbers on Nov. 4. A recent survey done by PennPIRG shows that youth turnout rates have surged in many of the primaries held by both parties this year.

In Pennsylvania's Democratic contest, for example, 14 percent of registered voters were aged 18 to 29. Twenty-one percent of those young voters turned out for the Democratic primary — a 200 percent increase in overall young voter turnout in that state since the general election in 2000.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have divided the Democratic Party by race, income and education, but there is no demographic indicator that sorts the Democratic vote as starkly as age.

If you voted in one of the Democratic primaries or caucuses, your age probably determined your vote: The older you are, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the younger you are, the more likely you were to vote for Obama.

Part of this divide is easily explained, since Obama is younger, 46, and Clinton is 60. But, Obama has a particular appeal to young people such as Zahir Rahman, a sophomore at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Identifying with Obama

"He's hip to our culture and seems to know where younger people are coming from," Rahman says. Then he explains Obama's appeal as "someone who's new, offers this idea of hope, of change, which really isn't attributed to either party or any of the other candidates who are running."

But that's not the only reason young people vote for Obama, says Cliff Zukin, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Unlike their baby boomer parents, voters under 30 are incredibly tolerant.

"We have a woman candidate running against a black candidate for president," Zukin says. "If you had advanced that idea 25 years ago, people would have said that can't happen. And the young people today are so tolerant that they don't even think of that as an issue."

There have been "youth candidates" before in the Democratic Party, including Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Gary Hart. But this year, young voters are doing more than just getting excited about a candidate. They are actually turning out to vote.

Young Lean Democratic

In primaries and caucuses all over the country, voters under 30 have doubled and, in some places, tripled their turnout participation. Traditionally young voters have very low turnout, but now their participation nationally is reaching their share of the population. And the young voters who are turning out largely are Democrats, Zukin says.

"If young people come into politics and identify as Democrats, there's going to cause a sea change in politics," he says. "What we've seen with George W. Bush is that he has made Democrats out of young people the same way Ronald Reagan made Republicans out of young people."

People tend to form their partisan preferences in their 20s and stick with them, so this trend could be the beginning of a long-term political realignment. In the short term, if Obama is the nominee, age will be a big issue.

Underscoring McCain's Age

Obama is already teeing up a classic generational challenge to the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. On the campaign trail, Obama has said, "Now, I believe John McCain is a good man and a genuine American hero, and we honor his half-century of service to this nation."

The subtext of Obama's statement is that a half-century of service is a long time. Obama's message is simple: McCain is old. If he is elected, McCain will be the oldest president ever.

Sometimes McCain makes a joke out of his age.

At a Q-and-A with a group of newspaper editors, he was asked if he worried that voters might reject him because he will turn 72 by January 2009. McCain responded by pretending to nod off in his chair, to which the audience roared with laughter.

There will be a lot more talk about age, both funny and serious, if the general election match-up turns out to represent the biggest age difference in the history of American presidential campaigns.

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