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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Beating McCain — With Seniors

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, has a New York Times op-ed that merits a careful read by all Democratic candidates, especially Senator Obama. Kohut warns that “The personal and social resistance of older voters to the party’s likely nominee could well keep a Democrat out of the White House and reverse the nationwide Democratic trend,” and he provides polling evidence to make his case. Kohut cites an 8 point advantage (51-43) for McCain over Obama in favorability ratings by seniors in recent Pew Research Center polling, and notes,

…older voters — many of whom supported Democrats over the years — seem reluctant to support Mr. Obama. Hillary Clinton has carried the vote of people over 65 in 26 primary elections. And looking forward to the general election, the national polls now show John McCain running better against Mr. Obama among this older age group — as well as among middle-aged voters and younger voters.

The senior vote is becoming more important every election, because it is growing and because of seniors’ high turnout rates. The Kiplinger Retirement Report notes, for example, that “In the 2000 elections, people age 65 and older cast 25% of the votes although they made up only 12% of the U.S. population.”
In his Newsweek article “Generation Gap: Obama is trailing with older voters. Can he win them over?,” Jonathan Alter writes that “40 percent of the voters in Pennsylvania were over 60, which is not surprising considering that Pennsylvania trails only Florida as the oldest state in the union.”
Senator Obama is well-aware of his shortage of senior voters. Alter quotes Obama: “If you look at the numbers, our problem has less to do with white working-class voters [than] with older voters.” Alter agrees:

Obama did better among seniors in Pennsylvania, where he lost 59-41 percent, than in Ohio, where Hillary crushed him by 41 points in that age cohort. That 69-28 drubbing tells us almost everything we need to know about why Hillary won Ohio by 10 points on March 4.

Kohut points out that “significantly more older voters hold the highly conservative social opinions” on social issues like equal rights, iinterracial dating and immigration. He also provides April polling data showing McCain has an edge over Obama in the perceptions of RV’s 65 and older regarding characteristics such as: ‘patriotic’ (91-57); ‘tough’ (71-46); ‘honest (76-57); and ‘down to earth’ (68-51). However, Obama is more ‘inspiring’ to seniors by a margin of 53 to 39 percent.
Obama probably can’t make much headway with seniors who like McCain mostly because of his age/character/bio or conservative values. But Obama can make inroads into McCain-leaning senior voters who care about policy. Obama, like Clinton, has more agreeable policies for seniors regarding critical issues like Social Security, health care and Iraq. McCain will hit hard on tax cuts in appealing to seniors. But if Obama’s messaging on the aforementioned issues is sharp and well-targeted, he should be able to win a healthy portion of the senior vote. As Alter observes of McCain:

His problem is Social Security. McCain recently told The Wall Street Journal that he continues to support President Bush’s idea for private accounts. Whatever one thinks of that proposal on the merits, it’s a pitiful loser politically. Every place Bush visited in 2005 when he was stumping for his plan saw a decline in his popularity numbers when he left town…When Social Security gets discussed this fall, McCain had better duck. If anything, with the market down, privatization is even less popular now than in 2005. All the Democratic candidate has to say is, “If Senator McCain’s idea had been adopted, you would have lost a chunk of your retirement in the stock market.”

Alter is more optimistic about Dems’ chances with older voters, and believes “…Grandma and grandpa are likely to return home in November and vote Democratic, regardless of the nominee.” And given their unrivaled turnout rates, seniors — especially those who can be described as ‘high information’ voters — just may provide Obama’s margin of victory.

One comment on “Beating McCain — With Seniors

  1. PW on

    I can only comment on the two phases of Texas Dem caucus I participated in (precinct and, later, county). In both cases, the largest group by far were retirees, many quite elderly, from upper income to stress-level economics, some disabled (one or two severely disabled). The majority were pro-Obama. That seems to be the case in other states, according to friends and relatives who are admittedly “liberal,” “white,” middle and upper-middle class, and educated.


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