Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Republican voters seem to have found a new favorite (and it’s not Mitt Romney). Newt Gingrich is now outpacing Romney in some measures of electability, and pundits are predicting that his chances of winning the Iowa caucus are quite good.
Gingrich has attracted support across important Republican constituencies but he is particularly popular among older Republicans, which raises the question of whether senior voters could sweep Gingrich to the nomination. Talking Points Memo called older voters Gingrich’s “secret weapon,” and Business Insider’s Grace Wyler notes that this popularity could be “could be the difference between a flash-in-the-pan Gingrich ‘boomlet’ and a real surge.” In a poll released today, Gallup found that Gingrich is leading Romney among Republican and Republican-leaning Independents age 55 or older by two to one. Iowa has one of the highest populations of seniors in the country, so Gingrich’s popularity among this demographic can only help him in the state’s upcoming caucus.
Here at PRRI, we’ve done a lot of research on the Millennial generation (age 18 to 29), but seniors are an equally important – and interesting – age cohort. An analysis of the 2010 Census reveals that today, senior citizens (age 65 and up) represent a larger share of the population than at any other point in U.S. history. And as more and more baby boomers celebrate their 65th birthdays, this number is just going to keep rising. The 2011 American Values Survey paints an interesting picture of seniors and helps to explain why their views will matter in the 2012 election and beyond. All of this sets the stage for a dramatic schism in the 2012 election – if the Republican nominee is able to successfully court senior voters.
First of all, seniors are more likely than any other demographic group to be reliable participants in the democratic process.
- Over 9-in-10 (93%) of seniors report that they are registered to vote, compared to 79% of the general public and 61% of Millennials.
- Eighty-six percent said they voted in the 2010 election, compared to 65% of the general public and 36% of Millennials.
Newt Gingrich has been consistently strong on issues that are important to senior citizens, and seized opportunities that some of his fellow Republicans missed. In May, he lambasted Paul Ryan’s economic plan, saying that replacing Medicare with a voucher system was too “radical.” This could be a smart move, since the numbers show that seniors overwhelmingly agree that protecting social security is a critical issue. Millennials, on the other hand, tend to prioritize issues related to economic fairness or income inequality.
- Nearly 8 in 10 (79%) of seniors say that protecting social security is a critical issue, compared to only 53% of Millennials.
- Seniors are far less likely than Millennials to say that a lack of equal opportunity is a serious problem. While nearly 6-in-10 Millennials agree that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life, just more than half of seniors (51%) say that this is NOT a big problem.
Millennials are, on the whole, more optimistic than seniors about the economy; they also evaluate the president more positively:
- Fully two-thirds (66%) of seniors say that the economy has gotten worse over the past two years, compared to less than half (42%) of Millennials.
- Less than half of seniors (49%) have a favorable opinion of President Obama, compared to 59% of Millennials.
Gingrich appears to have been the most successful GOP hopeful to appeal to seniors during the primary, but even if he’s not the nominee, these generational rifts will almost certainly emerge during the general election.
He does have one potential pitfall among seniors, though: Millennials are far more forgiving about sexual misdeeds than seniors. Nearly 8-in-10 seniors (78%) say that an elected official who commits adultery should resign, compared to only 35% of Millennials. It’s perhaps unfortunate for Gingrich that his infidelity is buried in the 1990s – if anyone remembers Gingrich’s turbulent marital history, it’s likely to be seniors.