By Susan Page, USA TODAY
YORK, Penn. - At age 74, Jack Ireton-Hewitt is volunteering in his first campaign, walking door to door and manning an information booth at a county fair to help elect Republican Mitt Romney president. But the retired manufacturing executive has failed to persuade two targets close to home: His granddaughters, ages 19 and 21.
The first-time voters back President Obama.
That much-debated gender gap? The generation gap is wider. In a national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, most 65-and-older seniors support Romney while young adults under 30 back Obama by almost 2-1. The 18-percentage-point difference in their presidential choices is one of the electorate's biggest demographic divides, and it helps define campaign strategies for both sides.
The enthusiasm of the Millennial Generation for Obama, who is now 50, fueled his election victory four years ago. Though still backing him, younger voters have lost some of their ardor while seniors have become significantly more engaged than in 2008 on behalf of the 65-year-old Romney - and they are much more likely to vote. At stake in this divide is not only the presidency but also the country's policy direction - shaping the debate on Social Security and Medicare spending, the need to invest in education and the priority placed on environment.
Ireton-Hewitt, for one, finds his granddaughters' point of view exasperating.
"Their big thing is Obama is going to lower the interest rates on their college loans," he says, noting that he worked his way through college and graduate school without borrowing a dime. The Chambersburg resident appreciates Romney's business background and his record in turning around the troubled Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. "That's the kind of guy we need as president today," he says.
At age 18, Alaysha Claiborne is working in her second campaign after volunteering for Obama before she was old enough to vote in 2008. She arrives at the campaign's storefront in downtown York in a bright yellow T-shirt and blue jeans to work a Saturday afternoon shift at the re-election phone bank.
There are political differences in her family, too. Her grandmother is "pretty conservative," says Claiborne, who will enter Temple University in Philadelphia this fall. Her generation has its own distinct perspective, she says. "Young people are more liberal and more accepting," and Obama's biracial background and international upbringing appeals to them. "His personal story is very diverse, and my generation, we pride ourselves on our diversity."
In some ways, the clashing generations reflect the changing face of America, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. Among the seniors surveyed, 16% are Hispanic or racial minorities. Among those under 30, that proportion nearly triples, to 45%. Younger Americans overwhelmingly assess the nation's growing diversity as a good thing rather than a bad thing, by 56%-32%.
Seniors are inclined to see it as a bad thing for the country, by 44%-39%.
"I hate to use the word racially motivated; I don't think that's it," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who studies generational differences. "It's a fear of change and an unfamiliar change in a bad economy." That's one reason the new health care law is viewed with such suspicion by seniors, he says.
"Young people are interested in the future," he says. "They're not afraid of change."
Frey has created an index that measures what he dubs the "cultural generation gap," ranking states by the gulf between white seniors 65 and older and non-white children under 18, a mismatch that could spark conflicts over public policies and the allocation of resources. Three of the top six states on his index are among the dozen battlegrounds likely to decide the presidential election: Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. Swing states Colorado and North Carolina also are high on the list.
Do more or less?
Views of the role of government differ, too.
Two-thirds of seniors say the government is trying to do too much that would be better left to businesses and individuals; about one in four say the government is doing too little to solve the country's problems. Among those younger than 30, the divide is much closer, 52%-47%, between those who say the government is doing too much or too little.
On no issue is the gap greater than on the question of same-sex marriage. Almost six in 10 Millennials say the next president should work to make gay marriages legal nationwide. Fewer than one in four seniors agree.
Asked to assess the importance of a dozen issues facing the next president, the youngest voters and the oldest ones reflect different priorities and self-interests:
•For those 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are preparing for or launching careers in a tough economic climate, the top-ranked issue is creating good jobs. Among those 65 and older, many of whom are retired or approaching retirement, that concern drops to sixth.
•For those 65 and older, ensuring the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare - programs on which many of them rely - ranks second. Protecting those entitlement programs falls to seventh among those under 30.
•Seniors are more concerned about the way politics in Washington works, or doesn't work. By double digits, they put a higher priority on reducing corruption in the federal government (their top issue) and on overcoming political gridlock.
•Millennials, who may be starting families or still be in school themselves, put a higher priority on improving public schools and making college education affordable and available. As a group, they are more concerned about environmental issues such as global warming.
The findings are based on a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken July 19-22 of 1,030 adults, including 334 respondents who are 65 and older (margin of error +/-7 percentage points) and 128 respondents who are 18 to 29 (margin of error +/-11). The younger group largely mirrors the so-called Millennial Generation, of those born from 1981 to 1993. They are 18 to 31.
A major generation gap in presidential preference also was found in the daily Gallup poll, aggregated over three weeks, which has larger samples and lower margins of error. In the period from July 2-22, registered voters under 30 supported Obama by 14 points; those 65 and older backed Romney by 10 points.
The two group's differences in priorities are likely to sharpen the looming debate over how to reduce the federal deficit, including the possibility of raising taxes - an issue on which seniors express stronger and more negative views than young adults. This year's lame-duck session of Congress will consider the ax that is poised to slash spending if the legislators can't reach the budget deal that has eluded them.
The groups also shape this year's campaign appeals. Obama has tried to cut into Romney's lead among seniors by warning that his opponent wants to convert the popular Medicare program into a voucher system. (Romney supports giving seniors the option of the current system or a new "premium support" plan to purchase private coverage.) The Romney camp is trying to win over voters, including young people, who backed Obama four years ago but are disappointed by the nation's continued economic travails. "It's OK to make a change," a new ad from the Republican National Committee says.
Still, the thrusts of both campaigns are aimed at drawing undecided voters and generating enthusiasm among core supporters. That's why the president talks so much about student loans and job-training programs while Romney spotlights concerns about the size of government and the deficit.
On a Saturday morning, several dozen GOP activists show up at Lancaster County Republican headquarters for the launch of Romney's local victory campaign. Asked why they're for the former Massachusetts governor, most cite taxes (too high), spending (out of control) and the health care law they deride as "ObamaCare."
"I don't want socialized medicine," says Beverly Rubin, 62, who was making calls in the phone bank set up in the basement. A paper sign taped to the door calls it the "GOP Victory Center." It's the first time Rubin has volunteered in a campaign since she was 14 and the candidate was Barry Goldwater.
"It's the fact that Barack Obama is president," she says. "I want to see a change. I think the country is going down completely the wrong path."
Upstairs, Immo Sulyok stands next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Romney in the back of the room. GOP county chairman Scott Boyd has offered volunteers who sign up on that day the chance to have their photo taken with the cutout and signed by the candidate - by auto-pen, he notes in the interest of full disclosure.
"To help the less fortunate, that's important, but this is not a sustainable model" for the U.S. government, says the white-haired Sulyok, who declines to give his age. "It feels good to go to a money tree, but that's not realistic. We don't have that far to go ... to be like Greece, Spain."
Mary Jo Sottek, 67, and her husband, Tom, 68, consider the question of why young people back Obama by such a wide margin.
"We believe in the Constitution," she says. "But younger people today. ..."
"With younger voters, it's the president's charisma," he says, shaking his head with apparent distaste.
'Everybody loves him'
At the Obama headquarters in York, 25 miles down Arsenal Road, the volunteers tend to be younger and are more casually dressed. Asked why they support the president, they cite his support of women's rights and gay rights, his global perspective, his relative youth.
"For me, it's the women's rights issue and issues like education which are most important to me," says Hannah Miller, 21, a senior at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. "I really want to have a say in what the future is going to be."
"The biggest thing for me - it's not so political, it's more of an interest in his leadership," says Hesham Abdelhamed, 23, a junior studying international relations at York College. He supports tighter government regulations on the banks and Obama's approach on foreign policy. "Everybody loves him" around the world, he says of the president.
Why is there a generational divide?
"The older generation may be more skeptical, more careful about their decisions," he suggests.
Irene Langley, 66, sports a small circular Obama campaign emblem on her cheek, courtesy of a fellow volunteer who specializes in face-painting. Langley has a theory for why many voters her age are inclined to back Romney. "The country is changing so fast, and I just think people may be afraid of change," the lifelong Democrat says. "The older people cling to their older ideas, and they won't let them go."
Dizzying developments in technology are part of that, she says. There's this: In the USA TODAY poll, three of four seniors were reached on land lines. Eight of 10 Millennials were called on cellphones.
The age divide gives the Romney camp one big advantage. Those 65 and older are the electorate's most reliable voters; young people are the least. In the survey, three of four seniors say they have given "a lot of thought" to the election, historically a sign they will show up at the polls. Four in 10 of the Millennials say the same.
"Our largest polling places in the county are our three senior homes," says Diane Moore, 43, the GOP's Election Day coordinator for Lancaster County. "In 2008, our college campuses came out very strong for Obama. We hadn't seen that before ... but I would think that support is not going to be as strong this time."
The Republican volunteers laugh when asked if they're certain to vote in November.
"100%," Mary Jo Sottek says.
"I'll be there, or I'll be dead," Sulyok says.