Older voters have been gravitating to the Republican party for the better part of the past two decades. Forty-eight percent of seniors identify or lean Republican compared to 45% for Democrats — and Donald Trump won 53% of the senior vote last Fall. But are we about to witness a “grey” re-alignment? According to an article in today’s The Hill newspaper, Democrats say maybe so. Democratic strategists are hoping that Republicans are starting to repel seniors by striving to repeal Obamacare, gut Medicaid, privatize Medicare and cut Social Security. It doesn’t help that President Trump’s proposed budget slashes federal block grants that help pay for Meals on Wheels and other programs that stabilize and support seniors.
In a Facebook Live broadcast with National Committee President Max Richtman today, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) agreed that seniors may swing back to the Democratic party in the next election cycle. “Republicans like to imply that seniors are greedy geezers,” Schakowsky said, “But their Obamacare replacement would have allowed seniors to be charged up to 500% more than younger Americans for private health insurance.”
There are myriad reasons for older voters’ preference for the GOP in recent years. The majority of white voters identify as Republicans — and some 85% of today’s seniors are white. Many of today’s older voters came of age during the prosperous post-war America of the 1950s – and may feel alienated by cultural changes associated with the Democrats. In fact, candidate Trump skillfully played on seniors’ nostalgia for a bygone (and in many ways, imaginary) America.
Another factor may be that seniors have felt supremely confident – some would say overly confident – about the sanctity of the two federal programs that benefit them the most, Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats may have done such a good job protecting these programs that seniors simply take them for granted. In fact, the last time that the majority of seniors voted Democratic was in the 2006 congressional elections, after President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security. Democrats and seniors’ advocates like the National Committee stopped him. On the other hand, President Trump won the senior vote not only by thrumming the strings of nostalgia, but by promising not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (promises he is already breaking).
To win back seniors in 2018 and beyond, Democrats must remind them that Republicans are an existential threat to our cherished retirement and health security programs. In other words, thanks to the GOP, the time for overconfidence in the inevitability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is over. President Trump is already shattering his sacred promises to older voters. He fought for the GOP’s American Health Care Act which would have cut nearly $1 trillion from Medicaid (on which poorer seniors depend for long-term care) and reduced the solvency of Medicare by three years. House Speaker Paul Ryan still dreams of turning Medicare into a voucher program. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX) is pushing a bill to cut cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for Social Security and raise the retirement age to 69. And despite his campaign vows, the president has surrounded himself with budget hawks who are sharpening their knives for seniors’ earned benefits programs. (Earlier this month, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney questioned whether disability benefits should even be a part of Social Security.)
Democrats must also bust the oft-repeated myths that Republicans use to justify benefit cuts — that Social Security and Medicare are going “bankrupt” and need to be “modernized” (translation: privatized and cut). If Congress does nothing, Medicare still will be able to pay 87% of benefits beyond its 2028 “insolvency” date and Social Security 79% of benefits beyond 2034. To win the senior vote, Democrats must push the kind of modest and manageable solutions proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman John Larson (D-CT), and others to keep these programs solvent for the long haul – with no benefit cuts.
Recent polling suggests that the party who sides with seniors on these crucial issues will reap political gains. The National Committee’s own poll of likely voters showed overwhelming support for traditional Social Security and Medicare. Even more encouraging, strong majorities opposed benefit cuts and higher eligibility ages — and favored boosting benefits by scrapping the payroll tax cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share. As long as Democrats back up their rhetoric with action and vigorously oppose harmful changes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, they have a decent shot at winning back those coveted seniors at the ballot box.