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.
As if to remind us what is at stake with three weeks to go until election day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doubled-down on the GOP’s promises to ‘reform’ Social Security and Medicare, which really means cut and privatize. His comments came on the heels of a Treasury Department announcement that the federal budget deficit grew to nearly $780 billion during President Trump’s first full fiscal year in office, due largely to GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations enacted at the end of 2017.
Nevertheless, in a television interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday, McConnell perpetuated the convenient untruth that Social Security and Medicare are the main drivers of the debt.
“It’s very disturbing… There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle those changes because of the popularity of those programs.” – Mitch McConnell, Bloomberg, 10/16/18
In fact, tax expenditures – especially the Trump/GOP tax cuts – are the number one drivers of the debt, not Social Security or Medicare. Social Security is self-funded and does not contribute to the debt. The same goes for Medicare Part A.
Contrary to McConnell’s claim that there is a “bipartisan reluctance” to address the future of Social Security and Medicare, Democrats on Capitol Hill have offered several common sense solutions that would modestly improve benefits, while keeping both programs fiscally sound for the foreseeable future. These include Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act, Bernie Sanders’ Social Security Expansion Act, and several pieces of legislation to boost Medicare benefits and empower the program to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma.
However, under the ‘leadership’ of McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, none of these bills has been properly considered. Instead, McConnell and his cohorts insist that the only way forward is benefit cuts for future retirees.
In the Bloomberg interview, McConnell said both parties should have worked together to raise eligibility ages – which amounts to a huge benefit cut – during the Obama years.
“We had the opportunity to do that for 6-8 years. Unfortunately, it was not achieved.” – Mitch McConnell, 10/16/18
Certainly, seniors’ advocates do not consider it “unfortunate” that painful benefit cuts in the form of higher retirement ages were not enacted under President Obama. But McConnell and other GOP leaders have made it clear that they will move forward with this kind of ‘entitlement reform’ if they retain control of both houses of Congress.
This is why we say that the choice this November is between boosting and cutting Social Security and Medicare. One side (represented by McConnell) wants to cut benefits to pay for a tax cut for the wealthy and big corporations; the other wants to modestly increase benefits while assuring the financial health of both programs for decades to come. That’s why it’s vital that seniors and their families cast ballots for candidates who want to expand – not slash – Social Security and Medicare. If McConnell and his compatriots win, retirees lose.
Social Security beneficiaries will receive a much-needed, 2.8% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2019 – providing a $39 bump to the average monthly retirement benefit. The 2019 COLA is higher than 2018’s (2.0%), which was partially offset by an increase in Medicare Part B premiums for many beneficiaries. With Medicare Part B premiums anticipated to rise minimally for most beneficiaries next year, most Social Security recipients will be able to keep the lion’s share of the cost-of-living increase.
“This COLA is good news for seniors living on fixed incomes. Every extra dollar helps. But the current COLA formula (the CPI-W) is inadequate because it does not account for seniors’ rising expenses – especially housing and health care. COLAs could be improved by adopting the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which is based on retirees’ actual spending habits rather than those of the general population,” – Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
There is legislation in Congress, including Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act and Rep. John Garamendi’s CPI-E Act of 2017, which would require the use of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly to determine COLAs for a broad array of federal retirement programs, including Social Security. November’s elections may breathe new life into these bills after languishing under the current Congressional leadership.
With four weeks to go until election day, seniors and their families should be seeking answers to some crucial questions affecting Social Security and Medicare. Those answers must come from anyone who wants the votes of current and future retirees on November 6th, because the future of Americans’ earned benefits depends on electing candidates who truly support both programs.
- Will you work to expand Social Security and Medicare?
It is not enough for a candidate (whether incumbent or challenger) to say he or she “supports” Social Security and Medicare. At a time of rampant income inequality and rising living expenses for seniors, both programs must be expanded in order to keep retirees healthy and out of poverty.
There are several bills in Congress that could be enacted to enhance benefits while keeping both programs financially sound for the foreseeable future. Those bills have not been properly considered under the current Congressional leadership. Ask your candidates if they support bills like the Social Security 2100 Act, the Social Security Expansion Act, the Medicare Fair Drug Pricing Act, and other like-minded measures. They are crucial to retirees’ financial and health security moving forward.
- Do you believe that Social Security and Medicare need to be ‘reformed’ to close the deficit, if not for today’s beneficiaries then for future retirees?
Beware any candidate who uses the term ‘entitlements.’ Seniors have earned their Social Security and Medicare benefits over a lifetime of work, which is why we call them ‘earned benefits.’ Likewise, be wary of candidates who call for Social Security and Medicare ‘reform.’ That is code for benefit cuts – whether by raising the retirement age, imposing more meager cost-of-living adjustments, or means testing. It can also mean privatizing Medicare, which would leave future retirees with fewer choices and higher out of pocket expenses – and eventually, the demise of traditional Medicare itself. Many members of Congress have brazenly called for Social Security and Medicare cuts to pay for the Trump/GOP tax scheme.
Tread carefully when a candidate promises not to touch earned benefits for today’s retirees, but favors ‘reform’ for future beneficiaries. This is a time-worn and cynical attempt to divide the generations. Seniors do not want to see their children or grandchildren’s future benefits cut – and tomorrow’s retirees will have an even harder time saving for retirement than previous generations; they will need the lifeline that Social Security and Medicare provide as much, if not more, than today’s seniors.
- Do you support lifting the payroll wage cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share for Social Security?
A majority of Americans across party lines support raising the cap on payroll deductions – so that high earners continue paying into Social Security above the current in come limit of $128,400. Ask your candidates if they support this common sense measure that would help keep Social Security solvent for decades. Two of the major pieces of legislation mentioned above would do just that. See if your candidates agree that the wealthy paying their fair share is a far preferable solution to cutting benefits for retirees struggling to make ends meet.
- Will you push to empower Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices directly with Big Pharma?
Once again, poll after poll suggests that most Americans want Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. It’s one of the most intuitive ways to maintain Medicare’s financial health for future generations and bring down prescription costs for everyone. Medicare defenders in Congress have introduced legislation to allow such negotiations, but these bills have predictably stalled under the current leadership.
- Do you support expanding traditional Medicare to include hearing, vision, and dental coverage?
Older people frequently experience problems with their ears, eyes, and teeth – yet Medicare still does not include hearing, vision, and dental benefits. Hearing aids alone can cost thousands of dollars out of pocket that many seniors simply can’t afford. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer these benefits – but with a trade-off of a limited choice of physicians and other providers. Do your candidates support hearing, vision and dental coverage for all Medicare beneficiaries?
Pundits and politicians have called the 2018 election one of the most consequential in modern history. That is not hyperbole. So many issues – and the rights and quality of life for so many Americans – are at stake. One thing is certain: everyone gets old and nearly everyone will experience an illness or chronic condition at some point in their lives. Most everyone will eventually rely on Social Security and Medicare. Current and future seniors deserve political leadership that will protect both programs from dangerous cuts – and ensure that benefits are boosted to adjust to older Americans’ actual needs. Only candidates who can answer these five questions to your satisfaction deserve your vote on November 6th.
On November 6th, voters will choose whether to boost or cut Social Security and Medicare. The stakes are that simple. Republicans proposals would raise eligibility ages, reduce benefits and undermine both programs. On the other side, Democrats have introduced bills to expand and protect seniors’ earned benefits – legislation which has languished in a GOP-controlled Congress.
Voters will have a clear choice between candidates who talk about ‘entitlement reform’ and those who truly champion Social Security and Medicare for current and future retirees. With five weeks until election day, the National Committee is supporting more than 60 candidates for House and Senate who share the commitment to preserving and enhancing seniors’ financial and health security. Here are a few of the candidates we are adding to our list this week:
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is a “strong proponent” of Social Security, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and earns a 100% rating from the National Committee. Ditto for Medicare, as she co-sponsored the Medicare and Medicaid Protection Act to protect the two programs from partisan attacks through the budget reconciliation process. Her opponent, Kevin Nicholson, has proposed means testing earned benefits and “indexing” the retirement age to average life expectancy.
In Virginia’s 7th district, former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger is challenging incumbent Congressman Dave Brat. Brat is a Tea Party favorite who has been campaigning to slash seniors’ earned benefits since first running for Congress in 2014, telling CNN last year, “(We’re) going to have to do some major cuts” to Social Security and Medicare. Spanberger opposes “any attempts” to privatize either program or to cut benefits, and pledges to “protect Social Security and Medicare so we can meet our obligations to seniors, now and into the future.”
Democrat Mike Levin seeks the House seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa in California’s 49th district. He believes that Social Security and Medicare are “some of the most successful programs in our nation’s history” and thinks we should be “doing the opposite” of raising the retirement age. Levin pledges to strengthen – not slash – benefits. The San Diego Union-Tribune calls Levin an “easy pick” in his race against Republican politico Diane Harkey.
Maine state representative Jared Golden is running against Congressman Bruce Polquin in the state’s 2nd Congressional district. Golden has rightly called out the GOP incumbent for voting to take healthcare away from more than 100,000 Mainers, adding $2 trillion to the debt by voting for the Trump/GOP tax plan and “threatening cuts to Social Security and Medicare to pay for it.” Golden promises to fight “privatization or rollback” of either program and advocates increasing benefits “so that more seniors have the opportunity for comfortable, secure retirements.”
One can see from the Real Clear Politics statuses for these races that the outcomes are not a forgone conclusion. Only one of the candidates we support, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, has a clear lead five weeks before election day. That’s why the National Committee has been encouraging seniors and their families to vote as if Social Security and Medicare are on the line. Because this election year, they truly are.