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Pew Poll

Senior Frustration Fuels Voter Anger

Dissatisfied and empowered, older Americans become agents of change

frustrated voter with sign

A participant at a Tea Party Express rally in Albany, N.Y., displays a sign critical of the current government's elected officials. — Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Notwithstanding Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s thin runoff win in Arkansas, American voters sent an anti-establishment messages on primary night, reflecting the attitude of many seniors that it’s time for a change in Washington.

“The age pattern seems to have flipped,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Doherty said that in 2008, young people were the agents of change, voting overwhelmingly for President Obama. But in 2010, older people are leading the charge for new leadership.

The Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found 32 percent of people 65 and older said they would be more likely to vote for someone who had never held public office, the largest percentage of any age group and a measure of their dissatisfaction with the current state of politics. Those ages 50 to 64 went for the inexperienced by a 27 percent margin, the second-highest number.

Some of the anti-establishment feeling was fueled by the health insurance reform debate, which older people found unsettling, according to Pew’s Doherty. With some aspects of the reform legislation being implemented immediately, older voters’ feelings about Washington may hinge on whether they like the changes they see. But the Pew survey found their sour attitude is triggering increased political energy. Of people over 65, 59 percent said Congress was doing a poor job (compared with 24 percent of those between 18 and 29), 40 percent said Obama was doing a poor job (compared with 10 percent of those 18 to 29), and 74 percent said they were dissatisfied with “national conditions” (compared with 64 percent of those 18 to 29).

Contrasted with the 18 to 29 age group, the 65-plus set was twice as likely to vote for someone who has never held public office before, three times less likely to vote for an incumbent and nearly three times less likely to vote for candidates willing to compromise on key issues.

That dissatisfaction was borne out by Tuesday’s primaries.

For example, anti-establishment “Tea Party” favorite Sharron Angle, a Nevada state legislator, won the Republican primary and will face Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in November in a race that is key to control of the Senate. Angle beat former state Republican chair Sue Lowden and ex-UNLV basketball player Danny Tarkanian, an “establishment” candidate in a different arena (he’s former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian’s son).

In California, Republican voters went anti-political establishment. They chose ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman over California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner by a more than 2-1 margin in the Republican primary for governor. In the Senate race, they picked former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina by a large margin over former Rep. and 2000 nominee Tom Campbell. Whitman will face long-time Democratic politician Attorney General Jerry Brown, himself the former governor and a favorite of the anti-establishment crowd, in the fall, while Fiorina takes on three-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In another attention-getting Republican primary race in South Carolina, state Rep. Nikki Haley was forced into a runoff in two weeks with fellow representative Gresham Barrett, even though Haley got more than twice as many votes as Barrett. In the circus-like atmosphere leading up to the vote, Haley was accused of marital infidelity and was the target of racist remarks mocking her Sikh heritage.

“There’s no doubt there's a lot of anger out there,” said Norm Ornstein, and being an incumbent is "not what it used to be." He noted that although Lincoln won, her being the first chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee from Arkansas didn't help her stave off a razor-thin margin nor keep her out of a runoff.

"It means a lot of people are going to get a scare" even if they don't lose their seats, he added, and that could alter their stances on controversial legislation. He said he expected Lincoln to take a tougher stand on financial derivatives regulation legislation, for example.

While in earlier years, Lincoln might have won renomination without a runoff, she was forced into one, partially because of union dissatisfaction with her vote against health care reform and opposition to rules making it easier for unions to organize. The unions poured money into the race and backed Lincoln’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

She was all but left for dead, but survived, leading former President Bill Clinton, another Arkansan who also was counted out early in his race for president, to label her the new “comeback kid,” Clinton’s nickname after he defied conventional wisdom.

And in general, women candidates are perceived as more of “outsiders” even if they have served in elective office, which could bode well for them in the fall elections if the anti-incumbent fever holds. Since Democrats have solid majorities in the House and the Senate, they are more vulnerable to the anti-incumbent trend. However a new Washington Post/ABC poll showed that six in 10 of those surveyed have a negative view of Republican policies, which could hurt GOP office holders as well in the fall.

Elaine S. Povich is a veteran Washington-based congressional correspondent

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