Seniors Fled Democrats in Midtermsby Denise Early on Nov. 09, 2010, under Health
Concerned by changes to Medicare and compelled by a Republican Party that promised a return to America’s glory days, seniors played a crucial — and often understated — role in races across the country. They were unswayed by ubiquitous Democratic warnings about Republican changes to Social Security. And they put a series of campaigns out of reach for Democrats.
In New Hampshire, for instance, seniors backed GOP Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte over her Democratic challenger by 33 points. In the narrow Illinois Senate contest, Republican Mark Kirk won older voters by 22 points. And In Delaware, they were the only age group to back tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell, by an 11-point margin.
“I’ve been saying since August 2009, that there was a tsunami — in this case a senior citizen tsunami — headed towards Capitol Hill,” said Jim Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association, a conservative campaign group targeted toward older voters. “That tsunami came ashore.”
The shift in older voters was the most dramatic swing of any age group, George Mason political scientist Michael McDonald said, and it gave the GOP the “magnitude” of its victory.
In the 2006 midterm campaign (regarded as a more useful basis of comparison than high-turnout presidential elections), voters 65 and older essentially split their vote evenly between Republicans and Democrats — a stark comparison with 2010. But that’s not the only noticeable change in voting patterns: In this cycle, in addition to losing the senior vote by more than 20 points, older voters also grew as a share of the overall electorate. In 2006, seniors made up 19 percent of the voting public; this year, they represented 23 percent.
Senior voters seemed motivated by concerns about the health care law and punished incumbent Democrats accordingly. The bill cut $500 billion from Medicare programs, a wash at best for older citizens. And Democrats largely failed to campaign successfully on aspects of the law targeted to benefit seniors, like closing the “doughnut hole” in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage.
“I think that there is a level of fear that has grown with seniors vis-à-vis the Obama health care plan,” said Republican pollster Steve Lombardo. “Anytime that there’s change, I think seniors are going to be more concerned that that change is going to affect them in a negative way.”
In the backdrop was the Obama health care plan that many people perceived as a level of government overreach and change that they weren’t happy with,” he said.
Republican strategists also tried, apparently successfully, to heighten the anxieties of older voters, running a barrage of negative ads against Democratic incumbents who voted for the health care reform package, highlighting the Medicare cuts as a campaign theme.
“It’s always easy to frighten seniors,” complained Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, “We allowed the opposition to define the health care plan for seniors. But the legislative process made it too open to definition.” Lake added, “Would [Franklin] Roosevelt have allowed anyone to say that any plan of his had a ‘death panel’? No.”
But Democratic counterattacks on Republicans who were on record in favor of Social Security reform or privatization failed to gain traction with older voters. Those attacks resonated best with middle-aged adults worried about their retirement. According to Lake, seniors didn’t seem to buy the argument that GOP candidates were planning dramatic changes to Social Security.
“That third rail has been pretty well unplugged. Seniors know better. Nobody’s going to take it away,” said Martin. “They’ve been using that scare tactic since Goldwater days. It was a canard then, and it’s a canard now.”
These dynamics were at play in races like Pennsylvania, where losing Senate candidate Joe Sestak hammered his GOP opponent Pat Toomey on the issue of Social Security privatization. Sestak tied Toomey in the 50-64 demographic but lost the senior vote by a lopsided 18 points.
Obama’s 2008 campaign didn’t much improve Democratic fortunes with the group. Obama has never been strong with older voters — and he didn’t need them to win. He lost the over-65 vote by 8 points. But rank-and-file congressional Democrats do need seniors to win — especially in nonpresidential years when younger and minority voters don’t turn out as reliably. In close races i which Democrats prevailed, it was often with the support of the senior vote. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), narrowly reelected, won seniors decisively by an 11-point margin.
“The president had a marvelous message to many people. But seniors — they’re not big on change,” said former Democratic congresswoman and senior advocate Barbara Kennelly. Like Bill Clinton in 1994, Obama will learn from the midterm elections, said Kennelly. “I think he should pay more attention to them,” she said.