The Senior Wave: Older Voters Set for Historic Turnout

The Senior Wave: Older Voters Set for Historic Turnout

By David Paul Kuhn - October 18, 2010

It's change grandma and grandpa believe in. Seniors are poised to vote at historic levels on Election Day. And it's bad news for Democrats. They support Republicans more than any other age group.

Republicans are more likely to vote at every age this year. But it's older Republican voters--including GOP-leaning independents--who could create a generational tide.

Young adults are not less likely to vote. Older adults are remarkably likely. Seniors and baby boomers are more engaged in the election and more enthusiastic about voting than pre-election polling has found since at least 1994, according to Pew Research Center data. By comparison, young voters and adults between the ages of 30 and 49 poll like previous midterm cycles.

The trend is strongest among voters age 65 and older. Eighty-four percent of seniors who are registered to vote say they will "definitely" vote. That's 9 percentage points above the previous record, 1994, when the question was first asked. Six in 10 seniors have given the election "a lot" of thought, also a peak. High enthusiasm and engagement generally signal high turnout.

We do not look to the old for change. Their voice is often minimized, said to be the past fighting the future. But it's the future that concerns seniors. They lived the ascendency of the American superpower. They compare that past to today's fragile state. And these days don't feel like the golden years, at least for most.

Seven in 10 seniors plan to work after retiring, according to a Employee Benefit Research survey. Older voters are most pessimistic about the economy. They are also most likely to say Barack Obama's policies made the economy worse. About six in 10 seniors approved of Obama in week one. Only about four in 10 do today. They are more skeptical of healthcare reform than the young. They are most likely to favor a smaller government over bigger, perhaps ironically since most receive Medicare.

AARP recently ran a study of its membership. Two-thirds lack confidence that their children's generation will be better off than their own. More than four in five of its members view the economy negatively. Nearly all are worried about the deficit. This partly explains their concern over big government. Uncle Sam lives beyond his means. And that means, many seniors fear, their safety net could be cut (or cut back).

That fear was underscored Friday. Social Security beneficiaries found out they will see no increase in their benefit checks. Benefits traditionally rise with inflation. But 58 million seniors' found out it wont next year, like the year prior. That will not warm them to the party in power.

And in an aging America, that news counts. America's median age is generally rising. Now baby boomers are retiring (or wish they were).

The senior vote has been relatively stable in recent midterms. They are about one in five voters. This year however, seniors constitute a larger share of the likely 2010 electorate, seen in Gallup data, than in any midterm since 1994 (though 2002 nearly matches). Eight in 10 seniors say they are "certain" to vote this year, according to ABC News/Washington Post polling. That's 11 points above seniors standing in its 2006 survey.

Democrats have either reconciled with, or missed, this senior moment. The president held an MTV-style town hall last week with young voters. He recently gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine. He's rallying his base on college campuses.

The young always receive more political attention than the old, though the old generally shape elections more than the young. That trend is exaggerated in midterm elections. Seniors 2006 turnout rate, 63 percent, was more than twice the youth rate. That year, voters age 60 or older were 29 percent of the electorate. Young voters were 12 percent.

Democrats' struggle with seniors is not news. Voters 60-plus sided with Republicans in seven of the last ten presidential elections (and two exceptions were Clinton era three-man contests). Yet, among that same 60-plus population, Democrats have actually faired better in midterms. Democrats split seniors in 2006 and won the larger 60-plus bloc, as they did in Reagan era midterms.

This year, by Rasmussen's measure, seniors favor electing a Republican in their district by a 18-point margin (53 to 35 percent); Republicans' advantage with all other age groups is in the single digits. Gallup tracks the same trend. Seniors following the election closely favor Republicans by an 11-point margin in the ABC/Post poll.

This senior surge is, like the electorate overall, coming from the right. Democratic seniors and baby boomers are less engaged than past midterms. But at least seven in 10 GOP seniors and baby boomers, including right-leaning independents, are highly engaged. That's roughly 20 points above past norms and their Democratic counterparts this cycle.

The tea party momentum is one factor. Nearly a third of tea party supporters are seniors, according to New York Times/CBS News polling. Almost half are baby boomers.

Seniors are hardly the only engine behind the Republicans' rise this year. The middle has shifted against Democrats. Democrats' historic problems with the white working class, and white men more broadly, have emerged all over again. But the other key factor is indeed generational.

How big of a factor? It's not an exact science. Demographic shifts often fall within exit polls' margin of error. The Hispanic share of the electorate only rose from 8 to 9 percent between 2004 and 2008. But we pay attention because Hispanics are a growing share of the population. And so are seniors. This year, the future might belong to the old.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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