White seniors energize McCain campaign

In Focus // Politics

August 10, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - If Barack Obama's mother were alive today, she'd be 65. In other words, she'd be part of his problem.

Obama's problem is with older white voters. He's been wooing them for months and still has little to show for it.

During the primaries, they swung solidly behind Hillary Clinton. Now they're backing John McCain.

Among white voters 65 and older, McCain leads by 15 points, according to a recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey for Democracy Corps. The Democratic firm found that McCain is running four points better among white seniors than President Bush did four years ago.

"White seniors," then, may be the solution to a puzzle that's perplexed some people, namely, why are the national polls so close, given the built-in advantages for a Democratic candidate this year?

Answer: Because McCain's popularity among older whites is offsetting enthusiasm for Obama among their children and grandchildren.

Generational divide

If McCain can build on this advantage, the generational divide could turn out to be the defining dynamic of the '08 election. Of course, it's still relatively early, and many voters aren't tuned in yet to the presidential contest.

For Obama, women could be the key to fixing his problem with seniors, since they are more likely to vote Democratic than men. At the moment, though, white women 65 and older favor McCain over Obama by double-digit margins, according to a recent national survey of female voters.

"It makes the Republican strategy pretty clear," says Democratic consultant Celinda Lake, who helped conduct the poll for Lifetime television.

"If you get the women who are 50 to 64 to join the women who are over 65, you've got a strategy for beating Obama."

Older white women are worried about Obama's age (he's 47), which feeds into their doubts about his qualifications and inexperience at the national level, Lake says. Older women voters do want change, she adds, but they also believe there is both good change and bad change.

"Some of it is race," she says. But older white women "are nervous about Obama not just because he's African-American, but because he's new in so many ways."

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who collaborated on the Lifetime survey, says McCain can gain strategically if he's able to extend his lead among older whites. It would free him to spend less time defending a Republican-leaning state, like Florida, and put more into pinning Obama down in senior-rich Pennsylvania, which the Democrat would like to put away early.

The Republican advantage among white voters isn't new. President Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to carry a majority of the white vote, more than 40 years ago.

But seniors had been a different story - more Democratic than the rest of the electorate - until fairly recently.

Now they're steadily crossing over to the Republican side. In 2004, voters ages 65 and up went Republican for the first time in years, backing Bush more heavily than the rest of the electorate.

That's partly because the generation with roots in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal is passing away. Today's seniors increasingly identify with Reagan conservatism, according to analysts in both parties, and they're better off financially than the Roosevelt seniors (at least in part because of government programs enacted by Democrats).

McCain could extend, or even accelerate, this Republican trend. In his campaign, McCain has tried to shift the debate away from controversial Republican proposals to partially privatize Social Security, which he supported in the past. And neither candidate has made much of an appeal for senior votes.

"When was the last time you saw a campaign run on Social Security and Medicare?" asked Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "I expect you'll see McCain do well with older voters, not because of his age, but because of his politics."

McCain, who turns 72 this month, will be the oldest presidential nominee since Bob Dole, 73 in 1996.

But in a strange twist, McCain - a generation older than his Democratic rival - is the candidate whose mother, now 96, has a prominent campaign role (to counter the age issue).

Obama can't help it that his mother died of cancer in 1995. But he has used her image in campaign commercials to make the point that he was raised by a (white) single parent.

Telling the story

That life story is still unfamiliar to many voters, including seniors he needs to reach.

Bill Clinton used his nominating convention to dispel a widespread misimpression that he came from a wealthy family. Obama has a similar opening this month in Denver to make voters - including skeptics from his mother's generation - more comfortable with the idea of him as president.

"The convention's a major opportunity," says Lake. "Obama has an incredibly compelling story to tell women in terms of his background, his own economic struggle, his single mom, going to school, relating to their concerns."

The other day, at a campaign event in Ohio, a woman identified as a 78-year-old retired teacher had question for Obama: "Who is spreading that vicious rumor that women my age, white-haired and all, don't support you?"

With a laugh, Obama replied that it was, indeed, "a vicious rumor," and untrue.

At least for now, those women are supporting McCain, however, and keeping the Republican in the game.

Where their votes end up may well determine whether the presidential election is a nailbiter or a blowout.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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