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Is the Grand Old Party Growing Older?

Republican primary voters are getting older. And it's not just because, like the rest of us, they've aged four years since the last presidential election.

The proportion of GOP primary voters who are 50 and older has gotten substantially bigger since 2008, according to exit polls in the states that have held primaries so far, even as overall turnout has dropped. In many cases, the increases have been in the double digits, showing a dramatic rise in the influence of older voters in the primary contests.

The most dramatic increase was in Maryland, where the percentage of 50-plus voters in the state's GOP primary jumped from less than half (46 percent) in 2008 to more than two-thirds (67 percent) this year. Much of the increase was attributable to voters 65 and older, who made up 29 percent of the GOP primary electorate this year, compared with just 13 percent in 2008.

In Georgia, older voters also packed a bigger political punch. In 2008, 49 percent of the GOP primary voters were 50 years or older; this year 64 percent were 50-plus. And in Massachusetts, the block of 50-plus voters grew from 47 percent in 2008 to 64 percent this year.

Older people traditionally have been more reliable visitors to the ballot box than younger voters, although the youth vote was important in propelling Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination and then to the presidency in 2008. With Obama unopposed for his party's nomination this year, turnout in Democratic primaries has been anemic.

Republican voters also are showing less interest this time around, at least so far. According to a study by the Bipartisan Policy Center, 11.5 percent of eligible voters turned out for the GOP primaries through Super Tuesday, compared with 13.2 percent in 2008. Looking at just older GOP voters suggests that they aren't responsible for the drop.

Of 19 states where exit polls were conducted in both 2008 and this year, 15 showed an increase in the percentage of 50-and-older voters, and in two more - where the exit-poll results were divided among age groups below and above 45 - the share of 45-and-older voters increased as well. In addition to Maryland, Georgia, and Massachusetts, the other 12 are:

  • Alabama (from 56 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2012;
  • Florida (from 65 percent to 71 percent);
  • Illinois (from 54 percent to 63 percent);
  • Louisiana (from 57 percent to 65 percent);
  • Michigan (from 50 percent to 60 percent);
  • Mississippi (from 62 percent to 67 percent);
  • New Hampshire (from 49 percent to 56 percent);
  • Ohio (from 52 percent to 56 percent);
  • Oklahoma (from 52 percent to 62 percent);
  • Tennessee (from 51 percent to 62 percent);
  • Virginia (from 52 percent to 60 percent); and
  • Wisconsin (from 52 percent to 61 percent).

In the second category (with the dividing line at age 45): Nevada (from 72 percent to 78 percent) and South Carolina (from 67 percent to 72 percent).

Maybe we'll see something of a mid-course correction, but it's a trend worth watching as the race for the GOP presidential nomination enters the home stretch. - Susan Milligan

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