Older Americans are one of the most powerful voting blocs in U.S. elections. More than half of the electorate in the 2016 elections were over 50. Senior voters typically make up an even bigger share of Americans casting ballots in mid-term elections. Some analysts believe older voters will determine who controls the House and Senate in the 116th Congress. There are myriad reasons why older citizens come out to vote – especially in mid-terms – at higher rates than their younger counterparts, including a greater sense of voting as a civic duty and a recognition they have an important stake in every election. For much of the 20th century, seniors largely supported the Democratic party – for some very good reasons.
President Franklin Roosevelt made Social Security one of the landmark accomplishments of the New Deal. Decades later another Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, would push health care coverage as an entitlement for the elderly and make Medicare one of the cornerstones of his Great Society program. – CNN, 9/19/18
Unfortunately, during the first two decades of this century, many seniors have been voting against their own interests by electing candidates who pose an existential threat to the very programs that they depend on for financial and health security. “It’s like clinging to the end of a thin rope and voting for the rope-cutting razor party,” opined writer Edwin Lyngar in Salon.
Blogger Ronni Bennett teased out this concept further in 2015, suggesting that seniors not only hurt themselves by supporting the party of benefit cuts, but the younger generations, as well:
When a person votes for a politician who has promised to cut, eliminate or privatize Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, etc., he or she is voting to impoverish their children’s and grandchildren’s old age (and/or disability) in addition to their own. – Ronni Bennett, As Time Goes By, 1/12/15
President Trump – who won 52% of the senior vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s 45% – prevailed partly by falsely promising “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. In a classic bait-and-switch, his administration and its allies in Congress proposed budgets that would cut billions of dollars from both programs. Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which, among other things, guarantees coverage for pre-existing conditions and limits the age penalty that insurers can impose on older patients.
As CNN reported, seniors did themselves no favors in the past two mid-term “wave” elections:
“In the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections when Republicans regained control of the House and Senate, respectively, GOP candidates were solidly backed by voters 65 and up.” – CNN, 9/19/18
The senior vote in those last two mid-terms wasn’t even close. As the chart below indicates, older Americans went for Republicans by a 21% margin in 2010 and 16% in 2014. In fact, most seniors voted for Republicans in three of the last four mid-term elections, though they did help provide Democrats a big enough boost to recapture the House in 2006.
These votes were extremely consequential. The 2010 mid-terms brought the Tea Party to Congress – a bloc of right-wingers intent on shrinking safety net programs (especially Medicare and Medicaid) and immune to compromise (even with their own party leadership). During the 2011-2017 period, Republicans imposed caps on non-defense discretionary spending that led to severe cuts for the Social Security Administration (SSA) and threatened senior services from Meals on Wheels to home heating assistance.
Every budget the House GOP has proposed since 2010 includes the privatization of Medicare and raising the eligibility age as high as 70. The majority also pushed the Chained CPI for calculating Social Security cost-of-living adjustments – a meager inflation index that would amount to a 9% benefit cut over 30 years.
Once the Republicans got control of the House, Senate, and White House in 2016, they enacted a tax cut that mostly benefitted the wealthy and big corporations, then claimed retirees’ earned benefits would have to be slashed to pay for it. Both the White House and Republicans in Congress proposed to eliminate or cut services for low income seniors and research into diseases affecting the elderly. Make no mistake, that is what they will do if voters keep the GOP in control of both houses of Congress on November 6th.
Why then, since 2002, have the majority of senior voters supported the party that continually tries to undercut their benefits? Analysts who have studied this trend attribute it, in part, to the GOP’s weaponizing of cultural issues. Seniors who tend to be more liberal on economic policy but conservative on social issues have gravitated toward the Republicans. John Halpin, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains it this way:
“Cultural backlash politics has taken the place of traditional economic-based voting, particularly among older voters. Trump’s ethno-nationalism feeds older voters constant lies about how he is going to protect social welfare programs for people like them, while tacitly or explicitly doing the opposite by aiding wealthy interests with huge tax cuts and then threatening these social programs.” – John Halpin, Center of American Progress
But this wedge strategy may not work with seniors in November. President Trump’s dishonesty, undermining of fundamental American institutions, and erratic behavior may be driving seniors back to the Democratic party – along with his blatantly broken promises about not cutting Social Security and Medicare. Or, as John Halpin observes, “Many seniors and other voters are wising up to the scam and may return to economic concerns.”
In an CNN poll taken earlier this month, 57% of voters aged 65+ said they’d support the Democratic candidate in their Congressional district, compared to 39% for Republicans. That would represent a historic turnaround – and a sign that seniors’ votes and true interests may once again align.