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
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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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