Richard Rountree once trusted the government and voted for Democrats. These days, however, the 55-year-old owner of an Internet technology company who lives in Azalia, Mich., does neither.
"I'm frustrated," he says. "I think a lot of people are."
Rountree's journey –– from a ticket-splitting youngster with faith in the system to a staunch conservative who contends "the other side just seems to be so full of it" –– suggests he could be the face for a statistical portrait of America's voters 50 and older. For much of his life, he says, he paid little attention to how politicians governed, "because, for the most part, you could trust the people you sent to Washington."
But after starting his business in 1996, Rountree says, he became alarmed by the growth of government spending. He also became alarmed at how politicians in both parties constantly broke their promises to curb spending. Now, he says, he knows when politicians are lying: "Their lips are moving."
Here are four reasons why incumbents will be thinking about voters like Rountree as the 2010 midterm elections approach.
1. Anger. This emotion was reflected in a Pew Research Center/National Journal poll, released in May, in which one-third of 50-plus Americans said they were less likely to vote for an incumbent, compared with just 13 percent of those who are ages 18 to 29. On the flip side, about 30 percent of 50-plus Americans said they were more likely to vote for someone who has never held elected office, twice the rate of the youngest voters.
Some analysts say the one-two punch of a health care debate that prompted questions about the viability of Medicare and an economic slump that devalued retirement accounts and cost older workers their jobs fuels the discontent. "It may be that seniors are experiencing a sense of vulnerability, a sense of uncertainty," says Paul Freedman, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that when he spoke about politics at an assisted-living facility in New Jersey, he "had not reckoned on the level of hostility toward government. They feel their security is under attack. They're very much into blaming, and they blame the incumbents."
2. Rightward tilt. The anger among 50-plus Americans, 40 percent of the adult population, is "a revolt of the haves and those who want to protect what they have," Baker says. In 2007, American families headed by someone 50-plus held 75 percent of the nation's personal net worth, according to AARP's Public Policy Institute.
"There's almost kind of an intellectual compass that points in a more conservative direction as people age," Baker says. "The older you get, the more you have to conserve."
Rountree moved away from the Democratic Party after Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, noting that, then a military recruiter, he watched as Carter's policies "decimated the ranks." He moved deeper into the conservative Republican camp after starting his own business.
Rountree wasn't alone, according to exit polls tracking today's youngest 50-plus voters over key elections.
In 1980, when Rountree and his cohorts were in the 18 to 29 age range, 44 percent of younger voters called themselves Democrats and just 27 percent called themselves Republicans.
In 1992, when most of them were in the 30 to 44 age group, 41 percent said they were Democrats and 38 percent labeled themselves Republicans.
In 2006, though Democrats took control of Congress, the gap for those voters –– by then in the 45 to 59 age group –– tightened to 37 percent saying they were Democrats and 35 percent saying they were Republicans.
3. Experience. Many retirement-age voters have been down the path of dissatisfaction before. In a July 1992 study of potential voters, the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press (now the Pew Research Center) found most 50-plus Americans calling for new leaders, "even if they are not as effective as experienced politicians."
That fall, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush, and two years later, Democrats were voted out of power in Congress. Today, the youngest of those 50-plus voters from 1992 are 68 years old.
Those voters have been through the health care debate before –– after Clinton was elected to his first term –– and have lived through earlier stock market plunges and recessions, so an inclination to try new candidates can be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that politics as usual hasn't worked.
Voters in the 50-64 age group have been an accurate barometer in presidential elections, voting narrowly for Clinton in 1992 and by a larger margin in 1996, slightly favoring George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and giving a one-point edge to Barack Obama in 2008.
4. Turnout. One given: the 50-plus bloc will vote in November at a higher rate than their younger counterparts. For those who started voting in the 1950s and 1960s, voting is practically a reflex. These people "were taught in their homes and high school civics classes that voting was a fundamental responsibility of citizenship, and they felt guilty if they did not fulfill this responsibility," Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz wrote in his recently published book, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy.
According to a Census Bureau report released in May, 64 percent of the nation's voting age population participated in the 2008 presidential election. But the generation gap was wide –– just 49 percent of those 18 to 24 voted, compared with 72 percent of those 55 to 74. In a poll released July 1, the Pew Research Center found nearly 80 percent of those 50-plus saying they were "absolutely certain" to vote in November, compared with 50 percent of those in the 18 to 29 age group.
In that poll, 57 percent of the youngest voters said they would support the Democrat in their congressional district. Among 50-plus voters, 52 percent said they would vote for a Republican in their district. Even among 50-plus women, almost half said they'll vote Republican this time around, although a plurality of all women called themselves Democrats in presidential election polls going back to 1972.
Outlook. Of course, nobody knows for sure when the electorate's frame of mind might change. Freedman questions whether the anti-incumbent mood will survive the summer, citing "a difference between saying you'd vote for someone with absolutely no political experience and actually voting" that way.
But not all challengers will be political newcomers, leaving Democrats on the defensive because they have more seats at stake. Barring a big drop in the unemployment rate or a sudden surge in the economy, Baker, like many political experts, projects the House will revert to Republican control.
That's fine with Rountree, but his main goal transcends party.
"We want to make sure that the people we put on the ballot are true conservatives," he says. "I don't think a lot of us care which party it is. We just want to see good quality people in there."
David Morris is former executive editor of CongressDaily, a twice-a-day report about Capitol Hill.