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Election 2012

5 Things to Watch in the Primaries

With the presidential campaign heating up, here are things that could separate the winner from the losers

It's (still) about the economy, stupid. Two decades after Bill Clinton's strategists coined the phrase, tough times again haunt voters. People are worried about the nation's economy and about their own personal financial situation. Seven in 10 Americans think the country is on the "wrong track."

In poll after poll, respondents name jobs and the economy as the top issues. There was a bit of welcome news when the unemployment rate fell to 8.6 percent for November, and to 6.4 percent for workers over 55. But for older people seeking work, the length of their job hunt grew to 58 weeks. There's a warning for Obama in these numbers too: No president since World War II has won re-election when the unemployment rate was 8 percent or higher.

Issues do matter. Americans overwhelmingly think that Social Security and Medicare have been good for the country, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a cautionary sign for Republican politicians eyeing those programs as a way to cut the budget deficit. Two-thirds of people 50 and older think that keeping those benefits the way they are is more important than reducing the deficit. Status quo sounds good to them.

Some GOP proposals would ask Medicare beneficiaries to pay for more of their health care costs. But more than six in 10 Americans who are 50 and older, including lower-income Republicans, think Medicare beneficiaries already pay enough.

Social Security is often called the "third rail" of politics, so damaging has it been to politicians who dared suggest changes in it. Indeed, 56 percent of those surveyed by Pew — including two-thirds of those ages 50 to 64 — said it was more important to avoid future cuts in Social Security benefits than to avoid tax increases to pay for them.

"What we've seen is that older people rank entitlements as important an issue as they do jobs," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "There is some vulnerability for the Republican Party on this issue. It's the only issue where they don't dominate the Democrats among the Silent Generation, which has been pretty loyal to the GOP in recent elections."

Sandy K. Johnson, a veteran Washington journalist, has covered presidential politics since 1984.


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