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A Cohort That's Up for Grabs This Year

The "senior vote," says Curtis Gans, is up for grabs this year, what with older Americans worried about their retirement security but unsettled over some social issues. Gans should know: He's been studying voter groups, or "cohorts," as he calls them, for more than three decades.

As Gans, the director of the Center for the independent Study of the American Electorate, told a group of foreign reporters recently, the 65-and-older vote isn't what it used to be. In the 1960s and 70s, he says, older voters tended to be Democratic "with a capital D," primarily because they were grateful to FDR and Truman and Johnson for programs like Social Security and Medicare. But now, the 65+ "cohort" is more evenly split, a trend that Gans says began in the Nixon presidency and took hold more firmly as more voters of all ages came to question the role of government in society.

"You have cross-cutting going on in this election among people who are seniors," Gans told the reporters at the Washington Foreign Press Center, "and I don't know how it's going to play out." The budget proposal championed by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, could hurt Mitt Romney (who's endorsed it) because the big changes it calls for in Social Security and Medicare "will be seen as a threat by older people," Gans says.

But President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, he adds, could hurt the Democratic president among voters 65 and older, who tend to be more conservative on social issues. "I think it's going to seriously hurt him in states that he would like to capture, like Florida, North Carolina and Indiana."

But like everyone else, older voters are worried about the economy - and perhaps even more than others, Gans cautions, since so many are on fixed incomes. "I think probably people over the age of 65 are more frightened than any other age cohort in the country,'' he says. It's a point worth noting, he warns, since turnout on Election Day is traditionally highest among that cohort -  er, that voting group. - Susan Milligan

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