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5 Things to Watch in the Primaries

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

"Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

As 2012 dawns, the question posed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 is still relevant, especially to the seven Republicans who would like to take President Barack Obama's place in the White House. The race for the presidency shifts into high gear on Jan. 3, when Iowans cast the first votes of the presidential nominating season. A primary marathon unfolds after that, with votes cast state by state, well into the spring. While the Republicans fight to the finish, Obama has drawn a bye in the primaries with no Democratic opposition.

See also: Meet the GOP presidential candidates.

AARP's coverage of Election 2012 includes profiles of the candidates, with an emphasis on where they stand on issues that most matter to older Americans, and video interviews with some of them that cover four of those issues: Social Security, Medicare, jobs and the economy, and retirement security.

Now it's time for the voters to speak. Here are 5 key things to keep in mind as the presidential primaries unfold:

50-plus voters count. It's a political truism that older Americans turn out to vote in much higher percentages than younger voters. It's even truer in primaries and caucuses. That leaves the nominating process in the hands of the most politically active and engaged citizens, most of whom are older and vote regularly. In Iowa in 2008, 73 percent of caucus-goers were 45 or older; in South Carolina, 68 percent of primary voters were over 45. That's clout.

It's all about delegates. The Republican and Democratic parties have elaborate rules that guide their nominating processes. National polls show former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at the head of the GOP pack, running just about even, with Rep. Ron Paul in third position. All the other candidates are in single digits.

But guess what? The national polls don't matter because the byzantine nominating process is a state-by-state endurance contest. The results in each state determine how many delegates are pledged to each candidate, and while some states allocate delegates on a proportional basis, others are winner-take-all contests. According to AP Elections Research, it will take 1,144 delegates to clinch the GOP nomination, which will be bestowed at the Republican National Convention in August.

Next: Why money matters. >>

Gingrich, Romney and Paul all appear to have a shot at the nomination based on polls in the early states: Iowa on Jan. 3, New Hampshire on Jan. 10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31. These four states will shape which two or three candidates are likely to survive into the grueling contests that follow. As part of its Election 2012 coverage, AARP will be keeping track of the delegate count.

Money is king. What's come to be known as the political-industrial complex will raise and spend at least $8 billion in the 2012 campaign, experts say. Obama has already raised at least $86 million for his re-election campaign, and his campaign has quietly set a fund-raising target of $1 billion. The Republican candidates combined have raised about as much as Obama. Much of this money will be poured into television ads, which are likely to start out positive in tone and gradually go negative. (Attack ads, history tells us, work.)

Individual contributions to a presidential candidate are limited to $5,000 ($2,500 for the primaries and $2,500 for the general election). But the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows unlimited amounts of money to flow into the political process. The ruling, undoing key post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, allows corporations, nonprofit organizations (such as AARP and the National Rifle Association), labor unions and wealthy individuals to spend whatever they want on political advertising and activities, as long as they do not coordinate with candidates or their campaigns.

So-called "Super PACs" (political action committees) have sprung up to haul in multimillion-dollar contributions. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, for example, reportedly is planning to give a jaw-dropping $20 million to a Super PAC that's backing Gingrich. Adelson, however, has denied that he's made a specific commitment. Other groups hide behind IRS rules as tax-exempt charities and do not disclose their donors. One example is the 60 Plus Association, a nonprofit organization that's' been described by PR Watch as "a corporate assault in 'good-for-seniors' clothing." It spent $7 million in the 2010 elections, most of it on political attack ads.

"Voters can expect a steady barrage of ads run by unfamiliar groups with patriotic-but-generic names," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. "Unfortunately ... more and more of their donations come from secret sources."

Next: Issues matter, too. >>

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.