Who wins Florida and the White House may boil down to a struggle between grandma and her grandkids.
There is a stark generation gap in this election. John McCain is winning over seniors, Barack Obama is winning the youngest voters, and the repercussions could extend well past November.
"This may be the first generational election in recent history," said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute. "This is the first election where the split by age is so dramatic.''
A Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters released last week found Democrat Obama trouncing Republican McCain among those younger than 35, 66 percent to 27 percent. But among Florida voters 55 and older, McCain led Obama by 10 percentage points, 51 percent to 41 percent.
Overall, Quinnipiac showed Florida a dead heat, with Obama at 46 percent support and McCain at 44.
"What you're seeing in this, and in the national data, is a realignment among younger voters to the Democratic Party, and studies have shown people generally stay with the parties they start with," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "This reminds me of the data back in the Reagan years. His popularity among younger voters was extraordinary."
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that Newhouse helped conduct showed Obama leading McCain by 24 points among voters younger than 35 nationally and McCain leading by 10 points among voters at least 65.
Nobody knows, however, whether the excitement for Obama among the FaceBook/YouTube generation will prove to be much more than hype. While Obama surprised skeptics with a surge in voting by younger people during the Democratic primaries — a more than 100 percent increase in young voter turnout over 2004 through early March, according to Rock the Vote — those voters historically are far less reliable voters than McCain's gray-haired supporters.
"We're pretty sure old folks are going to show up, but this is not the first time in the last several decades where the Democratic candidates have claimed they're going to rally young people," said Brown, noting that the talk of a tidal wave of young votes has never materialized in prior elections.
Which is why the unprecedented amount of money Obama is lavishing on states like Florida to register and mobilize voters may prove to be more of a necessity than an advantage. Obama's path to victory at this point depends heavily on unlikely voters.
"If you're Obama, you're encouraged but you're also scared to death,'' Newhouse said of the recent polls. "Your victory depends on a huge margin and turnout among 18- to 34-year-olds, who are historically the least likely to go to the polls."
Hal Alterman, a Democratic activist at the On Top of the World retirement community in Clearwater, sees it first-hand. He worries that Obama could lose many Democratic-leaning seniors, partly because passionate former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters still feel wounded and partly because of the youth-oriented approach of the Obama campaign.
"When you keep talking about tomorrow, people who are older start feeling like yesterday,'' said Alterman, a former Clinton backer who at 68 is among the younger residents at On Top of the World.
"There's a discomfort, a real feeling of distrust, with Obama," said Alterman, recounting how a 20-something Obama organizer recently visited his club and instead of explaining the strengths of Obama, mainly instructed the 70- and 80-year-olds to update their voter registration signatures.
"Part of it is the generational divide," said Alterman, "and part is loyalty to the Clintons. She was carrying the banner for us, and he was the 'them.' Now the Obama people are saying, 'Here's the revolution, come march behind our banner and join us,' but they are not doing a good job of reaching out and saying here's why we need you."
Florida seniors used to be a reliable, decisive voting block for Democrats. But time has shifted that critical piece of the electorate (about 27 percent of all Florida voters in 2004 were at least 60, according to exit polls) from FDR acolytes to Ronald Reagan fans. President Bush won Florida voters older than 60 by 5 percentage points in 2004, which was his margin overall. At the same time, the only age group of Florida voters John Kerry won was voters under 30, which he won by 17 points.
Obama turns 47 on Monday, and McCain turns 72 later this month, which would make him the oldest candidate ever elected president. Youth has not worked against candidates among Florida seniors historically, but University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus studies senior voter patterns and thinks that could change this year.
"Historically, older voters were very happy to vote for younger candidates because they projected their own health issues on the candidates, but this election? No. I think experience is mattering more," she said. "People see the tumultuous nature of the world and think experience really matters."
The Obama campaign is not writing off seniors, however, and Democratic pollster Tom Eldon thinks there's little reason to think Obama can't narrow the gap over the next three months, particularly as voters learn more about McCain's positions, such as private savings accounts for Social Security.
"Senior voters aren't caught up in the excitement for Obama that younger voters have, but that doesn't mean they aren't open to voting for him," said Eldon. "Senior voters are waiting to hear more from Obama. The determining moment will be when he stands at the podium to debate John McCain, and voters get a chance to take his measure."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.