Daniel Ruth - In an election year, age carries influence

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At 22, I cast my first vote for president in 1972 for George McGovern. Since then, I may have had to hold my nose a few times and occasionally cringe at the choices available for the highest office in the land. But still, I haven't missed casting an Election Day ballot for 40 years.

In many other areas of society -- the electronic media, for example -- the prime demographic for success is the coveted 18- to 35-year-old, which explains why there's nothing on the television I care to watch and National Public Radio is pretty well all I listen to.

If there is any advantage to collecting some rust around the fenders, it may be the high esteem having an AARP card engenders among candidates for office. I am a demographic diva. These pols love me! They really, really love me! At least until Nov. 6.

Both Republicans and Democrats have their core constituencies. Republicans tend to skew more favorably among whites, males and rural residents. Democrats generally appeal to minorities, women and urban voters.

Depending on the election cycle, these groups ebb, flow and sometimes overlap. But one thing remains immutably true. Everybody ages. And the geezer crowd -- my people -- votes.

The Wall Street Journal has reported the share of votes cast by senior citizens rose dramatically to 21 percent in 2010, up from 15 percent in 2008. Or put another way, Americans over 65 only make up about 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census, but they still influence more than 20 percent of the vote.

Why?

The facetious answer might be that going to the local precinct to cast a ballot may be the most exciting thing folks flirting with their last will and testament will do all day.

Sociologists and political scientists probably have all sorts of explanations for the disproportionate numbers of senior voters.

With apologies and all due respect to the whippersnapper community, I suspect older voters vote because: A) They care more and/or B) They are better informed on the issues at stake in a presidential election.

I could be wrong. But I'm old. Humor me.

Young voters turned out in droves to support Barack Obama in 2008, thinking perhaps they were electing an essence of cool-like Steve McQueen to the Oval Office. Then Obama actually started the job of president. This is called reality. And it didn't go over well.

By the 2010 midterm elections, the youth voter turnout dropped off by 60 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Could it be that younger voters were more smitten with charisma than eye-glazing public policy debates over health care and taxes? Whatever.

Senior voters have two distinct advantages over the more youthful citizen. First, by virtue of our age, we grew up in a time of greater civic engagement. We, and our older forebears, read newspapers, followed current events. Heck, we were even taught history in school.

Today, most young people can't identify the three branches of government or the historical importance of Nov. 22, 1963, or name even a few U.S. Supreme Court justices. But they know the judges on American Idol.

Baby boomers and older generations still read newspapers, still have a curiosity about what is going on in the world. Our successors are preoccupied with Facebook while alerting their "friends" where they just had a latte.

It might be argued that the older one gets, the more personal many of the issues begin to loom. When I was casting that first ballot, topics like Social Security and Medicare were, at best, abstractions. When you're 22, who worries about someday discovering a prostate the size of a casaba melon?

As Election Day nears, so does a reminder that in another two short years I'll start the Byzantine process of filling out the paperwork for Medicare. Should I apply for Social Security now, or wait? Will it still even be there for me? And what in the heck is Medicare Part B?

I can't speak for my peers, but I also vote out of a genuine sense of obligation, even if the ballot choices are "The Bowery Boys" meet Jake and Elwood Blues.

I vote because all anyone has to do is visit Arlington National Cemetery to find several hundred thousand reasons to fulfill one of the simplest, yet most profound exercises in citizenship asked of us.

It seems the least I can do for my country.

(Daniel Ruth is a columnist of the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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