With voters worried about the economy and deficits, and increasingly skeptical of President Obama, polls show Americans favoring Republicans over Democrats on most generic ballot questions. Even worse, seniors are the most disgruntled — and they vote.
A July Quinnipiac survey found that respondents favored Republicans over Democrats for Congress by 43%-38%. The gap was widest among those over age 55, 45%-37%.
Respondents favored the GOP by 48%-44% in a recent Gallup poll. Again the gap was largest among seniors, with those 65 and older preferring the GOP 52%-40%.
Meta Reistad, 69, of Napa, Calif., didn't vote in 2008 because she had "given up" on politics. She said she's returning to the voting booth this year "because we have to do something."
She added, "I'm an independent, but I'm probably voting Republican this year because I'm a conservative."
Her biggest concerns are with the deficit and the economy.
"Older people are like everyone else. They are unhappy about the economy," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Of those age 55 and older, 80% felt the economy was still in a recession, according to a June Quinnipiac survey.
Older people aren't exactly like everyone else, though. They are far more apt to vote, and they become more relevant in nonpresidential elections. Of those age 18 to 24, 40% voted in the last three presidential elections but just 18% in the last three off-year elections. By comparison, for those 65 and older, 68% voted in recent presidential elections and 60% in off years.
"Younger voters are not likely to turn out the way they did in 2008, when Obama was able to bring them out more than usual," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.
In 2006, when Democrats seized control of Congress, exit polls found that the 65-and-older voters split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. By contrast, the 18- to 29-year-old voters went for the Democrats 60%-39%.
With seniors once again leaning toward the GOP, getting the youth vote out for the Democrats is crucial. But just 21% of 18- to 29-year- olds are very enthusiastic about voting this year vs. 41% of those 65 and up, Newport says.
Democrats' signature achievement — ObamaCare — doesn't seem to be helping woo seniors.
"(Seniors are)concerned that it's going to hurt them in some way, so Democrats can't point to health care reform as a major benefit for Medicare recipients," said Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at the liberal think tank Third Way.
Here's why: ObamaCare relies on deep Medicare cuts to finance coverage for millions of younger Americans.
Unlike most surveys on the issue, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that a majority of respondents now view the health care law favorably. But even in that poll, those age 65 and older disliked it, 46%-38%.
Many seniors aren't happy with President Obama, and their "dissatisfaction with the current administration could also push for a change of leadership in Congress," said Raghavan Mayur, who runs the IBD/TIPP poll. The August IBD/TIPP poll found that only 24% of those age 55 and older were satisfied with Obama's performance on creating jobs and economic growth. That's vs. 26% for all respondents.
"When Obama first took office, he said job creation would be one of the last things to come about," said Bob Suffia, 66, of Guinda, Calif. "But you'd think they could speed things up with some of these construction projects."
Suffia, who voted for Obama in '08, said that he likes some of his policies and dislikes others.
While seniors are trending toward Republicans, that doesn't mean they are thrilled with them. The July Quinnipiac poll found that 43% of those age 55 and over had an unfavorable view of the GOP vs. 33% favorable. The unfavorable/favorable breakdown was worse, though, for the Democrats, 52%-32%.
"I have a real tendency this year to vote against incumbents in general, because I'm fed up with politics as usual," said Suffia.
Despite talk of a wholesale "throw the bums out" mood, just a handful of House GOP members are in trouble, while dozens and dozens of Democratic seats are in serious jeopardy.
Bennett suggests that Democrats can turn it around by November.
"Democrats cannot let Republicans escape their past — they must remind older voters not only about the Bush economic plan that drove the economy off a cliff, but also about Republican ideas like privatizing Social Security and letting Medicare wither on the vine," he said.
That seems to be the tack that Obama is taking. "They don't have a single idea that's different from George Bush's ideas — not one," he said earlier this month.
Yet others think that may not make much difference with seniors or voters overall.
"The Democrats can hope that unemployment drops, that the deficit narrows, that casualties in Afghanistan decrease," replied Brown. "History is not replete with examples of where voters were unhappy with conditions in the country but were turned around by candidates saying things are better than you think."