The nations two main political parties are a little like an old married couple. Both are carrying chips on their shoulders from past slights and injustices, real and imagined. Its all about getting even these days plus a dose of short-term politics for good measure.
The current fight over health care reform, and particularly over how seniors view the debate, is a clear case in point.
Senior citizens remain a crucial electoral group, both because of their attention to politics and because they vote, even in midterms. So the two parties are jockeying for position, trying to portray themselves as friends of seniors and the opposing party as an enemy.
In both 2004 and 2008, exit polls showed that voters age 65 and older constituted 16 percent of the presidential year electorate. But in 2006, voters 65 and older constituted 19 percent of the midterm electorate. Thats a significant difference.
Total turnout drops noticeably from the presidential year to the midterm election, and participation among lower-turnout groups (i.e., younger voters, African-Americans and voters at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder) traditionally drops off more than among higher turnout groups.
The overall drop in participation translates into the increased importance of seniors during midterms, and thats particularly the case next year because of the heavy media attention given to health care and Medicare this year.
Seniors age 65 and older were a particular problem for President Barack Obama last year, both in the Democratic primaries (against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton), and also in the general election.
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who lost to Obama by about 7 points nationally, carried voters 65 and older by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, according to the national exit poll. That was the only age cohort won by the Republican.
Obama carried voters 18-29 years of age by 66 percent to 32 percent, and he won voters age 30-44 by 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent. Voters in the largest age demographic, 45- to 64-year-olds, split almost evenly between the two candidates, 50 percent for Obama and 49 percent for McCain.
Recent polling has shown seniors particularly skeptical about the presidents health care agenda.
A late August survey by Republican polling firm OnMessage Inc. showed only 39 percent of voters age 65 and older approving of the presidents job performance on health care, while 51 percent disapproved.
In an effort to tweak Democrats and use an issue that Democratic political strategists have been using against GOP candidates and the Republican Party for at least the past 30 years, the Republican National Committee recently aired a morning TV spot on FOX News Fox & Friends and MSNBCs Morning Joe as well as more heavily in the Panama City, Fla., media market.
The ad featured RNC Chairman Michael Steele urging Congress to pass a senior citizens bill of rights.