By Richard Benedetto
MANCHESTER, N.H. – So much for the youth vote.
While the news media here relentlessly trumpeted the power and enthusiasm of young voters who reporters and pundits predicted were going to blast Barack Obama to a huge victory in the New Hampshire primary, in the end it was under-the-radar senior citizens who led Hillary Clinton to her amazing comeback win.
Exit polls show that Obama and Clinton tied among New Hampshire voters between 18 and 64 years old, 48 percent-48 percent. But Clinton creamed Obama among the 65-and-over crowd, 48 percent to 33 percent. And that was the difference between her return to frontrunner status and a candidacy headed for the junk heap.
Reporters who bothered to go out to polling places here Tuesday could have seen it coming. At 10 a.m. at one Ward 6 precinct in southeast Manchester, van after van pulled up in front of a church hall and dropped off senior citizens, many with canes and some with walkers, eager to cast their ballots.
“Young people will be voting later,” one confident Obama volunteer said as she watched the seniors shuffle into the building.
But while they might have materialized later, it wasn’t enough to catapult the charismatic Illinois senator to victory. Polls going into the primary showed that seniors, especially senior women, were Clinton’s strongest support group. She won them in Iowa. And as evidenced by the vans pulling up to the precinct in Manchester, the Clinton campaign was well organized and tuned to get them out to vote in New Hampshire.
True enough, Obama did get the lion’s share of the younger vote. And the under 30 crowd showed up more heavily this time than in the 2004 Democratic primary here. But so too did seniors.
Among 18-24 year olds, many of them college students and first-time voters, Obama beat Clinton by nearly 3-1. But when you moved up one notch among younger voters to the more-mature-and-mostly-out-of-college 25-29 year olds, Clinton edged out Obama 37 percent-34 percent.
Obama did better than Clinton among the still youthful 30-39s, but Clinton beat Obama with the 40-49 and 50-64 crowd. Thus, the tie among all voters under 65, which made the senior vote pivotal.
Why is Clinton so popular with seniors?
In large part, it is because she has assiduously courted them, first as a candidate for the Senate in New York and later as candidate for president. As senator, she has repeatedly visited senior centers, nursing homes and retirement communities promising to help them get better health care, prescription drug coverage and home care services from the federal government. In New York, her Senate offices have a reputation for being responsive and helpful to seniors seeking assistance.
Moreover, she is still seen as a champion of health care reform, even though her plan when she was first lady never passed. She gets an “A” for effort in the eyes of many seniors. Obama has no such record in that area, at least no such record that he has been able to effectively communicate to senor voters.
Additionally, while Obama’s charisma and charm have strong appeal to starry-eyed and still idealistic young people, seniors are a bit more sober in their judgments and less swayed by the emotion of the moment. With them, experience in public office counts more than hoopla.
So now the pressure is on Obama to come back and win someplace. Does he continue to focus on the youth vote in states where it is not as easily organized and courted as it was in New Hampshire? Or does he try to cut into Clinton’s older-voter and senior advantage. Either way, it is an uphill battle for him.
Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent with USA Today and now teaches politics and journalism at American University. His latest book, “Politicians Are People, Too, was published in 2006.