Right as seniors are growing in political influence, the nation’s retirees believe they are under assault from both sides. Democrats and Republicans alike have taken firm stands that have angered older voters, leaving a crucial voting bloc up for grabs and without a party they feel comfortable calling an ally.
Seniors “see themselves on the front line” of recent policy debates, said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
And both parties are guilty. During the health care debate in 2009 and 2010, Republicans painted Democrats as scheming to steal $500 billion from Medicare. During the debate over the nation’s looming debt crisis, Democrats portrayed Republican budget proposals as gutting Medicare, while GOP presidential hopefuls have called Social Security a Ponzi scheme.
It is a recipe, pollsters and party strategists say, for angering a huge slice of the electorate—the slice that’s most likely to turn out to vote next year.
Democrats have long based their bond with older voters on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But Democrats haven’t reaped much benefit: The party has beaten Republicans among older voters in just three of the last 10 presidential elections—1992, 1996, and 2000, according to exit polls.
Even in 2008, GOP nominee John McCain won voters older than 65 by a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent, though Democrats running for Congress won seniors by a narrow plurality of 49 percent to 48 percent.
But health care legislation and the flagging economy put further strains on the Democratic relationship with older voters. In 2010, Republicans took to the airwaves to tell seniors they would go to Washington to protect Medicare and Social Security from Democratic cuts. That November, Republicans won seniors by a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent, the largest percentage-point swing of any age demographic.
“It was almost the biggest part of the drop-off” Democrats experienced between 2008 and 2010, Greenberg said. “I think [seniors] saw a universal system being taken away from Medicare. They viewed [it as] expanding coverage, paid for by them.”
And more attacks are coming. “If our candidates are well-grounded in the details and can explain the problem and offer a reasonable solution, I think they’re going to have a good chance at winning a majority of those voters back,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Older voters have never been as in love with President Obama, the first post-baby boom president, as have younger voters. His approval rating, as measured by Gallup’s nightly tracking polls, always trailed among seniors; today, just 38 percent of voters older than 65 approve of Obama’s job performance, notably below younger voters.
Obama’s dismal numbers among seniors come as the nation ages noticeably. Data culled from the 2010 census show the median age is 37.2 years, 1.9 years higher than in 2000. People older than 65 make up 13 percent of the population, a 15-percent increase from a decade ago. (And that increase only hints at the wave to come; the percentage of the population between 45 and 64 years old ballooned 31.5 percent in the last decade.)
Yet Republicans have not endeared themselves to older voters, either. After a year marked by the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which Democrats attacked for its cuts to Medicare, and a presidential primary debate centered on whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, older voters are back up for grabs. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll released this week shows 42 percent of voters older than 65 prefer the 2012 elections result in a Democratic Congress, while 38 percent want a Republican-led Congress.
“Seniors are tuned in. They know about the Ryan budget, they know about Republican attempts to privatize Social Security, they know that Republicans have deserted them, and now seniors are deserting [Republicans],” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Every time Republicans call Social Security a Ponzi scheme or produce budgets to end Medicare or talk about turning Social Security over to Wall Street, they elevate Democrats.”
If seniors become a toss-up demographic, they could play a decisive role next year. Of the 20 states that have seen the highest growth in their senior populations, eight are or could be battlegrounds, including Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. That doesn’t include key House districts in states like Florida and Michigan, where senior voters dominate. Democrats believe they have the upper hand given Ryan’s budget and the Ponzi-scheme comparison. Republicans point to this year’s victory in a special election in northern Nevada.
Older voters punished Democrats more than any other demographic in 2010. But seniors haven’t felt rewarded by the Republican agenda, either. Whichever party is able to convince those voters the other side is after their entitlement programs will have a significant leg up in 2012.
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.