Are Seniors Souring on the Republican Party?

The GOP has lost more support among voters over 65 than any other demographic group in recent months, according to a new poll.

2010 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Linda McMahon talks with seniors at the Naugatuck Senior center people in Naugatuck, Conn.
National Journal
Molly Ball, The Atlantic
Aug. 10, 2013, 8:04 p.m.

As bad as things get for Re­pub­lic­ans — with wo­men, with minor­it­ies, with youths — there’s al­ways been one group they can count on: the old. But now one Demo­crat­ic poll­ster sees evid­ence that even seni­ors are start­ing to turn on the GOP.

Just 28 per­cent of voters 65 and older had a fa­vor­able view of the Re­pub­lic­an Party in a na­tion­al sur­vey con­duc­ted last month by the Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan Green­berg, versus 40 per­cent who had a pos­it­ive view of the Demo­crats. That’s a re­versal from a poll Green­berg con­duc­ted in early 2011, when 43 per­cent of seni­ors saw Re­pub­lic­ans fa­vor­ably and 37 per­cent saw Demo­crats that way.

“It is now strik­ingly clear that [seni­ors] have turned sharply against the GOP,” Erica Seifert, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate at Green­berg’s firm, wrote on the com­pany’s web­site this week. “We have seen oth­er voters pull back from the GOP, but among no group has this shift been as sharp as it is among seni­or cit­izens.”

More seni­ors still said they plan to vote Re­pub­lic­an than Demo­crat in 2014, 46 per­cent to 41 per­cent. But that 5-point mar­gin is down from the 21-point mar­gin seni­ors gave the GOP in 2010, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. In 2012, voters 65 and over were Mitt Rom­ney’s strongest age group, fa­vor­ing the GOP nom­in­ee by 12 points. (Rom­ney out­polled his two GOP nom­in­ee pre­de­cessors, John Mc­Cain and the 2004 cam­paign of George W. Bush, who both won seni­ors by 8 points.)

The shift is par­tic­u­larly sig­ni­fic­ant, Seifert noted, be­cause seni­ors are the most re­li­able voters in the elect­or­ate — and the most likely to turn out in the pres­id­en­tial off-year of 2014. Among all voters, Re­pub­lic­ans still led the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot in Green­berg’s poll, but by a single point, 44 per­cent to 43 per­cent. The poll of 841 likely 2014 voters was con­duc­ted by cell phone and land line Ju­ly 10 to 15 and car­ries a 3-point mar­gin of er­ror in either dir­ec­tion.

The seni­or shift was an un­ex­pec­ted res­ult that jumped out of a poll Green­berg was con­duct­ing for the Wo­men’s Voices Wo­men Vote Ac­tion Fund fo­cused on un­mar­ried wo­men’s views on eco­nom­ic policy. Seifert be­lieves it’s largely a re­ac­tion to the Re­pub­lic­an-backed plan by Rep. Paul Ry­an to phase in changes to the Medi­care sys­tem, which dates to 2011. But the slide ap­pears to have ac­cel­er­ated this year: Green­berg clocked Re­pub­lic­ans’ ad­vant­age with the over-65 vote at 11 points in Janu­ary, 6 in March and 5 in Ju­ly. “That’s the sort of shift that turns the tables,” Siefert told me.

The eco­nomy is the biggest un­der­ly­ing factor in the shift, Seifert said. In Novem­ber 2010, 49 per­cent of seni­ors said Re­pub­lic­ans were the bet­ter party on the eco­nomy; just 34 per­cent said Demo­crats were. In the Ju­ly 2013 poll, the parties were es­sen­tially tied on this met­ric, with 43 per­cent say­ing Demo­crats and 42 per­cent say­ing Re­pub­lic­ans.

Seni­ors’ ap­prov­al of the GOP-led House has dropped from 45 per­cent in early 2011 to 22 per­cent today. They have gone from identi­fy­ing more as Re­pub­lic­ans than Demo­crats by a 10-point mar­gin to identi­fy­ing more as Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans by a 6-point mar­gin. Fifty-five per­cent say the GOP is too ex­treme, and 52 per­cent say it is “out of touch” and “di­vid­ing the coun­try.”

In the Ju­ly sur­vey, large ma­jor­it­ies of seni­ors agreed with pro­gress­ive eco­nom­ic pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing pro­tect­ing Medi­care be­ne­fits (89 per­cent), rais­ing work­ing wo­men’s pay (87 per­cent) and ex­pand­ing ac­cess to child care for work­ing par­ents (77 per­cent). But seni­ors also took is­sue with the GOP on so­cial con­cerns: slim ma­jor­it­ies called the Re­pub­lic­an Party “ex­treme” on aid to the poor (53 per­cent), im­mig­ra­tion (53 per­cent), gay rights (52 per­cent), and gun vi­ol­ence (51 per­cent).

Green­berg is a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster, to be sure. But his work is widely re­spec­ted on both sides of the aisle. Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres didn’t ques­tion the idea that seni­ors are sour­ing on the GOP. “I don’t think any Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster who’s look­ing at the num­bers is san­guine about the state of the Re­pub­lic­an brand at this point,” he said. “You are go­ing to see the im­pact of the dam­aged brand in every demo­graph­ic group.”

Non­ethe­less, Ayres noted, Green­berg’s sur­vey still has Re­pub­lic­ans poised to win in 2014, if by a nar­row­er mar­gin than the 2010 wave. “What is strik­ing to me in this sur­vey is that the gen­er­ic bal­lot is a dead heat,” he said. “Re­pub­lic­ans are ac­tu­ally one point ahead.”

Seifert, however, be­lieves Re­pub­lic­ans’ ad­vant­age could erode if the party keeps up its em­phas­is on pure ob­struc­tion­ism in Wash­ing­ton. “We used to hear a sort of equal-op­por­tun­ity anti-Wash­ing­ton, anti-par­tis­an line from voters in our fo­cus groups,” she said. “In­creas­ingly, they’re shift­ing that blame to Re­pub­lic­ans for just say­ing no and re­fus­ing to com­prom­ise.”

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