Seniors, Health Care and Their Impact on the 2010 Midterms

Posted September 18, 2009 at 5:46pm

The nation’s 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. It’s all about “getting even— these days — plus a dose of short-term politics for good measure.

[IMGCAP(1)]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. That’s 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 that’s 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 president’s 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 president’s 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 MSNBC’s “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.

While the ad buy wasn’t significant enough to have much bite, except possibly in the single Florida media market, it reflects the view of GOP strategists that seniors (along with independents, of course) will be a key component in their party’s midterm election rebound.

Republicans chuckle that when Democratic Members of Congress started to talk about Medicare “savings— to pay for health care “reform,— it presented them with an opportunity to give Democrats a dose of their own medicine.

Most Democrats (and some in the media) apparently don’t see the humor — or the irony — in the GOP tactic, instead preferring to complain about Republican hypocrisy.

But Democrats certainly are aware of their vulnerability with seniors, and they quickly fired back with a TV spot of their own, though party insiders say that the ad buy had been in the works before the RNC ad hit and wasn’t a “response— to the very light Republican TV buy.

The Democratic National Committee-produced TV spot, “Republicans Want to End Medicare,— charges that Republicans have “voted to abolish Medicare for future generations— and includes photographs of former President George W. Bush and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

The ad ends with the announcer saying “The Republican Party: No friend of Seniors,— as the same words appear on the TV screen.

The DNC put more than $100,000 behind the ad, running it on national and Washington, D.C., cable TV stations and in 10 districts represented by GOP incumbents.

We are likely to see more of these kinds of skirmishes between now and next November, as the two parties try to define themselves and their opponents, and to woo seniors. But Democrats, almost certain to lose some ground with seniors, must find a way to offset those losses by motivating groups who turned out in big numbers last time for Obama but normally vote in fewer numbers in midterm elections.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.