Ironically, the biggest risk in Romney’s remarks will be how older white voters receive them. Census figures show that the share of households receiving either Social Security or Medicare is larger than the share receiving all means-tested government benefits combined. Seniors also represent an important component of the group that does not pay income taxes. And while Census data show that the share of Hispanics and African-Americans living in households that receive a means-tested government benefit (56 percent and 52 percent respectively) is much larger than the share of whites (22 percent), roughly four-fifths of the senior population drawing on Social Security and Medicare is white.
Republicans are now extremely dependent on those older white voters: The party won about three-fifths of white seniors in both the 2008 presidential and 2010 House elections, according to exit polls. In that sense, Romney’s claim that voters receiving government benefits are beyond his reach was questionable not only as political strategy, but even as political analysis.
These older whites have moved toward a hardening opposition to transfer payments for the poor. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, a significant plurality of them agreed that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
Polls also show them intensely opposed to Obama’s health reform plan: In a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, less than one-third of them said they believed the initiative would benefit them personally. But surveys show they also fiercely oppose cutbacks in entitlement programs for the elderly — which they tend to view “as social insurance … that they’ve earned,” as Ayres said.
Many forces are pushing white seniors away from Obama. But if a meaningful number of them interpret Romney’s remarks as equating them with the “dependent” poor, it could widen the opening for Democrats created by senior skepticism of the GOP ticket’s proposal to convert Medicare into a premium-support or voucher system.
Like other Republicans, Ayres says he believes Romney is unlikely to abandon the basic arguments about dependency he delivered in the May fundraiser. But, Ayres added, Romney needs to sharpen his language to reassure seniors that he is exempting them from his indictment. Given his challenges elsewhere in the electorate, the last thing Romney can afford is any erosion among the white seniors who have provided Republican presidential candidates a larger share of their vote in each of the past five elections.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed