Romney’s age gap with Obama

Mitt Romney’s focus on the economy seems to be scoring him big points with a key age group President Obama won in 2008 — voters between thirty-five and fifty-four years old.

Yet Romney is underperforming with a traditionally reliable GOP constituency — senior citizens.

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It turns out that his relentless and singular focus on the economy might be the answer to both anomalous results.

In 2008, Obama won every age group, except senior citizens. The phenomenon was relatively easy to make sense of. The older Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) resonated with seniors who, for the most part, were retired and, therefore, less dependent on jobs and the tanking economy. Meanwhile, economically-minded voters flocked to Obama, and he won solid victories with every age group below 65.

Yet polling suggests that pattern is reversing itself. Once again, the economy is heavily on the minds of those between 35 and 54 years-old, but this time, the group is moving toward the presumptive GOP nominee.

In three of Fox News’ four most recent polls (conducted in April through June), Romney polled best with voters between the ages of 35 and 54 years-old.

In April, he scored 9 percent better with this group than any other, in early June, he scored 5 percent better, and in the most recent poll, he scored 10 percent better with these voters than he did with younger or older voters.

If you dig deeper, his strength with voters between 35 and 54 shows up on numerous questions.  On job creation, those between 35 and 54 years-old picked Romney over Obama by 20 percent, and on improving the economy, they also picked Romney by 20 percent. On another question, voters between 35 and 54-years-old cited Romney’s business background as a positive attribute more often than voters from other age groups, meaning that portion of his resume held outsized importance.

Clearly, Romney’s wheelhouse lies squarely with this group of voters, and, in two of those four surveys, he held a double-digit advantage over Obama among 35 to 54 year-olds — a remarkably decisive margin, particularly in an election as close as this.

So why is Romney doing so much better with 35-54 year-olds?

A possible explanation is that each age group is concerned about a unique set of issues. While all three are deeply troubled by economic uncertainty, they also respond to other concerns, as well. For example, younger voters often cite immigration and gay marriage as particularly important, while seniors care deeply about Medicare or Medicaid. Romney's superior performance with 35-54 year-olds might be due to an alignment between his singular focus on the economy and that group's.

In the aforementioned polls, younger voters preferred Obama by an average of 16.5 percent, while senior citizens were split evenly between Obama and Romney.

Looking at all these polls together, then, we see the following pattern emerging — Romney is doing well with those whose overriding focus is the economy, but the bad news for him is that his failure to offer a broader vision might be limiting him from reaching the 50 percent he needs to become the next president.

So where could he pick up that extra support to put him over the top in this close election?

He has three options — he could cut into Obama’s lead with young voters, he could work to do even better than he’s already doing with those between 35 and 54 years-old, or he could try to woo older voters.

The first option is a difficult one, indeed. In 2008, Obama won the youth vote by roughly 34 percent. In the four Fox News polls presented in this article, he’s maintaining a 16 percent margin — a big drop from 2008, but probably a number that represents his bottom.

The president has worked to shore up the youth vote with popular announcements on gay marriage and immigration. In a Fox News poll conducted after those announcements, 57 percent of those under 35 approved of his performance while just 32 percent disapproved. And, in that poll, he had raised his lead over Romney to 20 percent.

The second avenue is also thorny. Romney is doing very well with those between 35 and 54 years old, but it’s hard to see how much better he actually can do. Obama won this group by about 5 percent in 2008 and the last Republican to take it, George W. Bush, did so by 5 percent.

Romney’s margin right now? About 5 percent. In short, this is the age group least prone to skew dramatically for one candidate over the other, and so it’s unlikely Romney can do much better here.

The third avenue is, undoubtedly, Romney’s most promising — he could work to win senior citizens, who were trending the GOP’s way until recently.

In 2000, George W. Bush won seniors by 6 percent; in 2004, he won by 5 percent, and four years later, McCain won seniors in a hostile political climate by 8 percent.

Yet in this series of Fox News polls, Romney is only able to manage a split. It’s not clear why Romney is running worse with this age group than past GOP nominees, but it seems to be limiting his candidacy.

Simply put, Romney would be holding a solid, overall lead if he were running better with senior citizens. As such, he might be able to score points in already friendly territory by offering his own vision of healthcare or speaking more specifically to the needs of senior citizens.

Polling suggest that Romney’s opportunity to take his candidacy to the next stage lies here and not with economically-minded 35 to 54 year-olds, who are already giving him their support.