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It’s no surprise that age is often correlated with political ideology, but generational differences are bound to play a particularly significant role in next year’s presidential election. A new Pew Research Center study, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” reveals a clear relationship between age and voter preferences, which could portend a much more challenging re-election fight for Obama.

According to the study, young Millennials tend to hold liberal attitudes, and 56 percent favor a bigger government. They would most likely choose Obama over the GOP candidate, even though only 49 percent approve of the president’s job performance. They still generally prefer Democrats over Republicans, but they lack the enthusiasm for Obama that they had in the 2008 campaign.

This is a sharp contrast to the Silent generation, people who reached adulthood between the late 1940s and early 1960s: Already conservative, they have moved even more toward the GOP out of frustration at the country’s direction.

Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and Generation X voters are less supportive of Obama than they were in 2008, and both lack confidence in their economic futures. Their votes are more difficult to predict, but their political discontent might make them shift more to the right.

The political delineation based on age presents the starkest divisions since 1972, according to Pew.

While the political divides between young and old are deep, there are potential fissures at both ends of the age spectrum. Millennials continue to support Obama at much higher levels than older generations. But Obama’s job ratings have fallen steeply among this group, as well as among older generations, since early 2009. Perhaps more ominously for Obama, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign.

In contrast, Silents — particularly those who affiliate with or lean to the Republican Party — are far more engaged in the presidential campaign than they were at this point in the contest four years ago. While Silents support Romney over Obama by a wide margin, they express highly unfavorable views of both the GOP and the Democratic Party.

Silents prefer the Republican Party on most issues, with Social Security a notable exception. Silents are about evenly divided over whether the Democrats or the Republicans can better handle Social Security. If debate over Social Security and Medicare comes to the forefront, it raises potentially significant cross pressures for Silent generation voters, who rank Social Security among the top issues affecting their 2012 vote.

Most Americans are unhappy with the current political climate, but each age group has reacted to the current situation in different ways. The Pew study offers further proof that the presidential election will be largely determined by which generations turn out to the polls — and, given growing disillusionment and disengagement by younger voters, the results are likely to hurt Democrats.

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