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America's Angry Older Voters

They're leading the bad-mood brigade that would throw the bums out

Americans are even angrier than usual at Congress, President Obama and pretty much anyone else holding elected office.

And older Americans are leading the bad-mood brigade, driven by economic and market turmoil, an ugly summer slugfest over the debt ceiling, threats to retiree financial and health programs, and general angst.

See also: Medicare, Medicaid on the table.

"It's an American tradition: When things are bad, you throw the rascals out," says Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to Presidents Ford and Carter.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll set a new record for discontent. A record low of 21 percent of registered voters polled said they thought most members of Congress should be reelected.

Obama's approval rating also hit a new low of 39 percent earlier in August, according to Gallup tracking polls.

"There's a rather nasty mood out there," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Quinnipiac's July poll showed Obama's approval ratings lower by two percentage points among Americans 55 and older, compared with all ages. The approval figures for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress also were slightly lower among those 55-plus, as compared with voters of all ages.

"There's a pattern. The older people are, the more frustrated people are, and the less supportive they are of both Congress and the president," Brown says.

A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll released Thursday showed older people were less inclined to vote for Republicans and Democrats in Congress or for Obama than voters of all ages.

Older Americans tend to be more politically engaged, so phenomena such as anger at incumbents is "amplified" among them, Hess says.

The voter angst has even trickled down to disapproval of governors and other state-level politicians. "When Washington gets a cold, states get pneumonia, and the localities often die," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Next: Anger over economy sets the tone. >>

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.

The debt debate — during which Obama said a default might delay Social Security checks — has made older people worried about cuts to safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

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."

Who gains?

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?

Next: Who will win 2012 election? >>

MacManus says sweeping out incumbents in large numbers happens when there are willing candidates to run against them, but newcomers are having a hard time raising money now to mount those challenges.

Brown says it's harder to predict who will win or lose from the voter anger this time because neither party has all the levels of power — and therefore all the responsibility. Democrats control the White House and Senate, and Republicans control the House.

If a wave election comes — bringing sweeping change — history shows it's more likely to help just one party, Brown says.

"Politics is zero-sum game," Brown says. "At some point, [voters] are going to get madder at one side or another."

Both parties will try to capitalize on the strong sentiments, MacManus says. Republicans will accuse the Democrats of irresponsible overspending. Democrats will hit back saying Republicans want to hurt older people with cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showed that older voters are leaning more toward Democrats than they were two years ago. When asked whether they would support a generic Republican or Democratic congressional candidate, 49 percent of older people said Democratic, and 45 percent said Republican. Just before the 2010 election, older people skewed heavily Republican — 50 percent for a GOP candidate, and 38 percent for a Democrat. They favor Obama 42 percent over a Republican opponent, 41 percent. That's a switch from 2008, when they favored Republican John McCain over Obama by eight percentage points in exit polls.

Older people "look to be a little more up for grabs, at least in the early going," says Carroll Doherty, associate director of Pew.

The Tea Party movement and Republicans got much of the blame for the ugly debt ceiling debate, Sabato says. But there's far too much time until the November 2012 elections to know who will pay dearest for the voter anger.

"What people feel now is much less important than what they feel in the fall of 2012," Sabato says.

Tamara Lytle is a veteran Washington political correspondent.