GOP Now Has Edge With Senior Voters

January 20 , 2003 | By Miles Benson

Republicans muscled their way to victory in the 2002 election with the help of millions of older voters once, but no more, a bastion of Democratic support.

If the GOP can hold the edge with this crucial and fast-expanding segment of the electorate, it will be difficult to deny President Bush a second term in 2004, and the Republicans may remain the majority party for a long, long time. On that, political analysts in both parties agree. They differ over the size of the “if.”

Bush now is moving to build still more support among the elderly with his tax proposals and his push for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The Bush economic program, particularly the centerpiece proposal to eliminate taxes on dividend income, is a definite head-turner with older voters.

“Bush’s tax plan is an attempt to peel off more seniors from the Democratic column,” said Richard Thau, president of Third Millennium, a Manhattan think tank focusing on economic issues important to voters between 20 and 40 years of age. “Karl Rove (Bush’s top political adviser) is reaching for the low-hanging fruit among seniors, who are disproportionately dependent on dividends.”

The biggest group of voters invested in the stock market are 50- to 64-year-olds thinking about retirement. Those over age 60 hold “a disproportionate amount of stock that pays dividends,” according to Neil Howe and William Strauss, co-authors of “Generations,” a book that examines cultural differences among Americans of varying ages.

But Howe and Strauss argue that the seniors of today are not the seniors of the past.

As the politically diverse pre-boomers and baby boomers swarm into the senior ranks, it is unlikely that either party will command their loyalty the way Democrats once did, because this generation will be less consumed by an appetite for entitlements.

“These are the folks who launched civil rights, feminism, the food safety and environmental movements, and the idea that they’ll shuck all those causes just to focus on their own bottom line with the tax code, well, it isn’t going to happen,” Strauss said.

Still, the deal-clincher with older voters may turn out to be the Republicans’ ability to devise a prescription drug benefit without changing the Medicare program in other ways that would scare seniors.

Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz was unequivocal: “Republicans have to deliver a prescription drug benefit this year. Failure to do so jeopardizes their majority status.”

He added: “There are other senior issues, like taxes and pensions and national security. But they all pale in comparison to the prescription drug issue and modernization of the Medicare program.”

That poses a dilemma for Democrats. They can help Republicans eliminate taxes on dividends and create a prescription drug benefit, then watch the GOP take credit. Or they can block such efforts and let the public decide whether the Republicans failed or the Democrats deserve blame for obstructionism.

While Democrats have always been positioned as the defenders of Medicare and Social Security, “It has been a while since Democrats really delivered anything concrete for seniors,” said Bill Galston, a Democratic policy expert. “In fact,” he said, “there may well be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality” at work.

Democratic strategist Craig Smith, an adviser to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., an announced candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, predicted that Republicans would provide prescription drugs only as part of a more drastic overhaul of Medicare that will disappoint and alienate seniors.

“They’ll say, ‘Yeah, but at what cost?’ Jeopardizing Medicare and Social Security? Was it worth it?” Smith predicted. “Seniors realize this massive deficit spending by Bush will end up hitting them as programs run out of money.”

For now, however to Democrats’ horror seniors seem inclined to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt.

Democrats owned the senior vote after President Franklin D. Roosevelt engineered the Social Security pension program and President Lyndon Johnson delivered Medicare to those over 65. It has become a swing vote only in the last decade.

Seniors are now a politically fickle lot. After favoring Democrats over Republicans in the 1992 congressional election by 12 percentage points, they tilted to Republicans in the congressional elections in 1994, 1996 and 1998.

GOP congressional candidates lost the senior vote nationally by 4 percentage points in 2000 (although Bush carried it narrowly).

But in exit polling in the 2002 congressional elections, Democrats and Republicans both found strong evidence that Republicans had moved slightly ahead.

Last Nov. 5, according to Republican pollster Bill McInturff, 48 percent of voters over age 65 said they were voting Republican, to 36 percent voting Democratic. Of the remainder, most refused to say how they voted.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg questioned voters age 60 and older, and found Republicans winning 51 percent to the Democrats’ 46 percent.

“The conventional wisdom about seniors is being turned on its head quickly,” said Susan McManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida-Tampa and author of “Targeting Senior Voters.” “A few years ago, we all assumed anyone over 65 was going to vote Democratic and was only interested in Social Security or Medicare, but that has changed.”

The reasons? “A lot has to do with the turmoil of the times we are in,” McManus said. “International issues are more pre-eminent and seniors are attentive to the need to defend freedom. They admire leadership and experience more than issue positions. And they are people more likely to be involved in the stock market, more economically settled, more educated, more mixed in partisan preference than previous generations of older voters who were more totally dependent on Social Security.”

Pollster McInturff agreed: “This cycle there was a fair amount of evidence that they were most focused on terrorism and national security. But seniors are a different population today than they were a decade ago.”

Many seniors who could proudly remember voting for Roosevelt have died off, replaced by those who proudly recall voting for Ronald Reagan in their early 40s. “There are now just (fewer) Roosevelt seniors and more Reagan seniors,” said Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council.

The importance of the senior vote is hard to overstate, not only because it is growing so fast but because voting participation by other age groups is declining.

“Seniors vote twice as much as young people in presidential elections and three times as much in midterm elections,” said Curtis Gans, who heads the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

And while there were 35 million Americans over age 65 in 2000, by 2030 baby boomers will push the number to 70 million.

Democrat Smith suggest that even if Republicans remain competitive with senior voters, Democrats will be in “good shape” because of their advantage with African-Americans and Hispanics.

Republicans scoff.

“It is amusing to me that people pay so much attention to African-Americans and Hispanics when senior Americans are growing faster and vote more than any other voting bloc,” said Luntz, the GOP pollster.

When Democrats lose the senior vote, Luntz said, “they become the minority party.”