Magazine article The American Prospect

The Republicans' Senior Moment

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Republicans' Senior Moment

Article excerpt

One reason the electoral map turned red in November was that the electorate turned gray. Older Americans went to the polls in droves to vote Republican, while young people stayed home. And one big question about 2012 is whether the elderly will still vote Republican if the GOP can be forced to spell out the implications of its political agenda for Medicare and Social Security.

The magnitude of the age shift and the degree to which it favored Republicans in 2010 were remarkable. In 2008, voters 65 years of age and older represented a smaller share of the total (16 percent) than did voters aged 18 to 29 (18 percent). But in 2010, elderly voters outnumbered the young by more than 2-to-1--23 percent compared to n percent. While the young still favored Democrats, the old swung massively to the Republicans, voting for them by a 21-point margin, 59 percent to 38 percent.

Throughout the year, polling found that of all age groups, the elderly leaned the most toward the Republicans and were the most hostile to health-care reform. No other age group depends more on federal spending, particularly for health care, but that did not deter a majority of seniors from voting for candidates who deplored "big government" and "socialized medicine."

At the root of this phenomenon is a psychology of self-exemption. Because it's piggybacked on Social Security, Medicare invites the elderly to believe they have earned its benefits, while other programs drain money from the taxpayers. In fact, the value of Medicare coverage far exceeds what seniors have earned through payroll taxes, but many nonetheless do not see themselves as being implicated in the evils of dependency on big government.

Right-wing campaigns have also played on the fears of the elderly that healthcare reform will come at their expense. One study of the 1993-1994 health-care battle identified below-the-radar direct mail aimed at the elderly as the source of the most flagrant misrepresentations of the Clinton plan. These past two years, beginning with Sarah Palin's "death panel" scare, conservatives again sought to raise anxiety among the elderly--and they apparently succeeded. A Gallup poll in June found 60 percent of seniors saying the adoption of reform was a "bad thing," while 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and a plurality of other age groups said it was a "good thing."

In this fall's campaign, the big claim of Republican front groups like "60 Plus" was that Democrats were cutting Medicare by $500 billion. …

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