The Baby Boomer Vote: Sandwiched Again

Age may have played a bigger role in the presidential campaign than race or sex.

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Baby boomers, the "sandwich generation," are again feeling the crunch. Boomers got the moniker because they're often squeezed between caring for elderly parents and helping out young adult children. This time, they felt the squeeze in the voting booth: Boomers were nearly equally divided between Democrat Barack Obama, who was the overwhelming choice of their children, and Republican John McCain, who won the support of a majority of seniors (the only age group to back him), according to exit polls. Here's a look at why baby boomers, who narrowly supported Obama, may have voted the way they did.

Economic turmoil. The financial crisis was on many Americans' minds when they entered the voting booth. "Older voters are interested in the economy, trumping pretty much everything else, with healthcare coming in a distant second," says Andrew Nannis of AARP, an advocacy group for the 50-plus set. The baby boomer vote, which went to President Bush by a slim majority in 2004, began to shift toward Obama after the Wall Street meltdown, polls show. "The baby boomers on the cusp of retirement dependents" worried about their pensions and 401(k)'s and Social Security even more than seniors," says Susan MacManus, a professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida. "They think they are going to have to work longer and pay higher taxes." The American ideal of each generation doing better financially than the last was also a factor. "Fifty-plus voters are concerned with the legacy they are leaving behind and the ability of their kids and grandkids to have a better life than they did," Nannis says.

Each generation may have viewed the economy somewhat differently. "For younger voters, it was jobs; for a person with a new family, it was housing; for boomers, it was their retirement and pensions and 401(k)'s; and for older seniors, it was their children's and grandchildren's economic future," MacManus says. Political analysts have seen the election as partly a referendum on Bush's policies. "Obama did extraordinarily well in taking advantage of the openings that Bush gave him over the past few years with the war in Iraq and the economic meltdown," says John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard University Institute of Politics. "Without those two issues, Obama would have had a much more difficult time resonating and connecting."

Getting older. One survey found that attitudes about age played a more prominent role in the campaign than those about race or gender. More baby boomers (35 percent) were willing to say that it would be a bad thing if someone over 70 were elected president than said they would feel this way if an African-American (11 percent) or a woman (9 percent) were elected, according to a Harris Interactive online poll of 2,710 adults conducted in August, before Sarah Palin was selected as McCain's running mate. Only 11 percent of baby boomers said it would be a good idea to elect someone over 70 years old; the rest were neutral about age. At the same time, Obama racked up large vote margins among African-Americans (95 percent voted for him), Latinos (67 percent), and women (56 percent), exit polls show.

Seniors appear not to differ politically very markedly from most baby boomers and the rest of the population. "The gap over the years between a person 60 and older and the general electorate has never been more than 3 percentage points, starting in 1980. This time, voters 60 and older voted 4 percentage points different," points out Bob Binstock, a professor of aging, health, and society at Case Western Reserve University. "These were [largely] people socialized in politics as teenagers when Eisenhower was in the presidency."

Culture of youth. The tumult of this election season could also have caused baby boomers to remember the political leanings of their youth. "Baby boomers came of age during the time of JFK and RFK and Johnson and King and Watergate," says Harvard's Della Volpe. "And I think a lot of their memories became a lot more active during this campaign." Many baby boomer parents also enjoy close relationships with their children, who tended to be Obama supporters. "Baby boomers and their children really talked about Obama, and young people for the first time influenced their parents in some ways," Della Volpe says. "They saw [Obama] in a new and different way through the eyes of their children."