Anger over economy sets the tone
The lingering lousy economy is driving much of the voter anger. The market turmoil that accompanied the protracted debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling, which nearly led to the country's first default, affected how older Americans feel toward incumbent politicians, Sabato says.
"The older you are, the more you care about financial security," he says.
Hess says Americans usually are preoccupied with things other than politics, but when the economy sours, it changes how they feel about their elected leaders. "People are upset. They are scared when you have unemployment this high."
Older Americans are particularly mad at politicians over the incivility and lack of compromise on display during the debt debate, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who studies voting patterns of older people.
"Congress has become a dysfunctional reality show," she says. Seniors who lived through the Depression or heard the hardship tales of their parents see a government that is out of touch by spending more than it takes in while citizens can't do the same, she says.
As older people struggle with higher food and gasoline costs, even talk of minor changes to Social Security makes them nervous, MacManus says. "It's interpreted as a broken system — broken faith on the part of elected officials."
But Sabato says the voter anger runs deeper than just economics. Older Americans, especially, worry that the country is losing its preeminence in the world as they see not just the economy faltering but also the loss of symbols of U.S. hegemony such as the space shuttle program, which is ending.
"Older people who lived through the 'American century' are concerned this century may be China's," Sabato says. "You worry the glory days are over."
Little more than 14 months from now, voters will decide whether they are mad enough to throw out Obama and congressional incumbents. And if they do, will they toss out just Democrats, just Republicans or incumbents of both stripes?