Swinging Seniors: Why Voters Will Decide 2002. (below the Beltway)

Article excerpt

ON ITS FACE, THE UNITED Seniors Association (USA) decision two weeks ago to launch a major advertising blitz in support of the House Republicans' prescription-drug proposal was not unusual. The pharmaceutical industry, which funds the USA, has a huge stake in how the prescription-drug debate plays out in Congress. Since the 1994 elections, the drug industry's campaign contributions have tilted Republican at about 72 percent. And even the ad campaign's $3 million price tag made sense: Steep, but a worthwhile investment to influence what could turn out to be a massive new government spending program.

What was odd was that the Republican plan in question doesn't really exist yet--because Republicans in the House are sharply divided over precisely what kind of plan to offer voters this fall. On the one side are Republican leaders, who circulated a draft plan in early May that would finance a modest Medicare-based prescription-drug benefit by cutting back Medicare payments to hospitals. On the other are several dozen rank-and-file Republicans who felt the benefit was either too small ($350 billion to the Democrats' $500 billion), too stingy (annual drug costs between $2,000 and $5,000 wouldn't be covered at all), or too shortsighted (because it would rob Peter's HMO to pay for Paul's arthritis pills).

By mid-May the dissidents were close to open revolution--which is why the drug industry, hoping to shore up support for the leadership's plan, had gotten involved in the first place. Republican Charlie Norwood of Georgia told reporters the bill had "serious problems." Iowa Representative Greg Ganske warned of small-town hospitals "getting close to bankruptcy." Pennsylvania's John E. Peterson predicted "devastating consequences" should the bill become law. But it's not just the consequences for hospitals that worry Norwood, Peterson, and Ganske. It's the consequences for themselves. Issues that seemed to have lost potency in the months after September 11--not just prescription drugs, but also Social Security and Medicare--have taken on a new urgency. Dozens of GOP incumbents are starting to feel vulnerable, as well they should: If 1992 was the Year of the Woman, 2002 is shaping up to be the Year of the Geezer.

IF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ARE A little like World War II--two vast armies squaring off from coast to coast--midterm elections are more like guerrilla wars. They are fought almost entirely by small numbers of highly trained, highly motivated foot soldiers: union workers and African Americans for the Democrats, religious conservatives and gun owners for the Republicans. Real combat is limited to a handful of competitive congressional districts and states with weak or retiring senators. And relatively few of those Americans eligible to vote actually will. The signs are already there: According to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, women over age 60 have become the single most Democratic age group in the country, creating a massive 22-point gender gap among senior women between the two parties.

The result is that tiny groups of voters--and even tinier swings within those groups--can move an election one way or another. The last time around, in 1998, the Democrats surprised everybody, including themselves, by gaining five House seats. They won those seats in part through small but significant shifts in turnout among black voters--a campaign masterminded by Democratic campaign whiz Donna Brazile at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and energized by the Republican drive to impeach Bill Clinton. In the 25 targeted congressional districts, African-American turnout jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent. (The labor vote also increased significantly, to 23 percent in 1998 from a 13 percent share of the electorate during the dismal 1994 election.)

Sheer demographics, then, explain in part why seniors will be so pivotal in 2002: By some estimates they will constitute nearly one-third of voters who go to the polls in November--up from about 22 percent in 2000. …