ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Young voters in America are growing more liberal, while older voters are becoming more conservative. That's a key finding of a new survey by the Pew Research Center. This week we've been airing a series of stories on generational politics, highlighting findings in the survey.
Today, we focus is the baby boomers, those born in the years right after World War II and known for their anti-establishment behavior in the 1960s and '70s. But those beginnings did not create a predictable Democratic voting block. In 2008, boomers narrowly backed Barack Obama, then swung to Republicans in 2010.
NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea has that story.
DON GONYEA: It should come as no surprise that the baby boom generation is a bit hard to pin down in its politics. After all, it represents 37 percent of the voting age population, bigger than any other age group. And the boomer birth years of 1946 through 1964 cover a lot of time. Just scan the radio dial, where early boomers swooned to Johnny Mathis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVENLY")
JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) Heavenly. heavenly...
GONYEA: The next wave dissected Dylan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time, you dressed so fine. You...
GONYEA: As for the youngest boomers, they took to the dance floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAYIN ALIVE")
THE BEE GEES: (Singing) Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm woman's man - no time to talk...
GONYEA: Historic touchstones included a Moon landing, Vietnam, Watergate, the arms race.
In Portland, Maine this week, which happens to be the U.S city with the highest concentration of baby boomers, 57-year-old Peter Duffy is a former construction worker. His first presidential election was 1972.
That was, '72 would have been McGovern versus Nixon.
PETER DUFFY: Okay, yeah. I voted for McGovern.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUFFY: I'm a Democrat.
GONYEA: And still a Democrat?
DUFFY: Yeah. Yeah.
GONYEA: But ask Duffy about government today.
DUFFY: I think the government should be run by businessmen and not politicians, because they don't run it as a business. They run it as - God knows what.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GONYEA: Duffy says he's voted for Democrats and Republicans over the years. He backed President Obama in '08. But this time, he's considering the Republicans, especially Mitt Romney.
DUFFY: Yeah, probably. Like I say, I'm still looking into everything and Romney is a businessman, good businessman. He made a lot of money for Massachusetts. But, you know, I'm still looking.
GONYEA: Carroll Doherty, of the Pew Research Center, says many a baby boomer voted for McGovern in 1972. The generation was the Democrat nominee's strongest voting bloc in a landslide loss that year.
CARROLL DOHERTY: They've moved quite a distance since then. And just over the past decade, an increasing percentage of boomers say that they identify themselves as conservatives. And they're taking more conservative views on the role of government.
GONYEA: But ask a baby boomer who the best president of their lifetime has been, and the top two answers are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
This group's big worry these days is the economy. Savings and investments have taken a hit, along with the value of their homes. Two-thirds say they expect to delay retirement for financial reasons. And they feel the squeeze between the cost of kids in college and the needs of aging parents.
You can hear it in the voice of 60-year-old Ann Romano in Portland.
ANN ROMANO: Oh, that's a struggle. I mean, the whole college education cost is a whole 'nother topic. I mean that's, along with health care, a really hot topic for me.
GONYEA: And she's there for her elderly mother, as well.
ROMANO: You know, I will watch what she does. She doesn't have a lot of money. She has to be really careful - very careful. So I have to watch what she does and if she needs money, yes, I would chip in.
GONYEA: Romano said she voted for President Obama and thinks he deserves a second term, even though she's frustrated by the state of the economy.
The Pew study shows that older boomers, like Romano, tend to vote more Democratic, younger boomers more Republican. As a group, more than half of all baby boomers today say government should be smaller. There's a clear trend in that direction. But Pew's Doherty adds that it's still not quite cut and dried.
DOHERTY: They favor the Republicans on some key issues. You know, notably things like the deficit. But they favor the Democrats on Social Security. So they're kind of conflicted at this point, a year ahead of the election.
GONYEA: As a result, the baby boomer remains very much a swing segment of the electorate. But there has been one constant for this iconic generation, going back to the time of Watergate and Vietnam. They expressed a deep lack of trust in government back then and that lack of trust persists today.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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