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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 16: Seniors May Soon Be Moving Left

Anyone interested in political demographics should remember two things about age cohorts: (1) they age, and (2) they change. At Washington Monthly yesterday, I wrote about a particular important discernable trend involving seniors–currently the bedrock of the Republican coalition–and how they may age and change in the near future:

[Y]ou definitely need to take a look at David Frum’s interpretation of new research on how the changing composition of the senior population is likely to affect voting patterns over time.
Frum begins by noting the central importance of the pro-Republican swing among seniors in the very recent past:

The emergence of the older voters as a massively solid Republican bloc is a post-Obama phenomenon.
The Pew survey explained the trend in a 2011 report. The Silent Generation that voted for Bush in 1988 had retained its conservatism into its retirement years. No news there. The news was among the next cohort, the Baby Boomers: After the year 2000, the Woodstock generation veered abruptly to the right.
In their youth, the Boomers had expressed strongly liberal views about the role of government. In 1989, asked to choose between a bigger government that did more for people versus a smaller government that did less, they opted for bigger government by a margin of 52-40. By 2007, that preference had reversed itself, 52-35, and it has remained reversed through the Obama years. Even more striking was the collapse in trust in government among the Boomers: In 1997, 38 percent of them trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time; by 2009, only 16 percent did so, the same suspicious percentage as their formerly more conservative “silent” elders….

This changing attitude towards government was most intense among (white) men, notes Frum, who were close to parity with women among the Baby Boomers now just reaching retirement age. These men drove the Republican senior wave, but their relative power is due to drop:

In 2010, the old as a group voted Republican because the lopsided hostility toward Obama among older men could overwhelm the mild preference for the president among older women. As the population ages, however, the ratio of men to women within the over-65 population should drop. The share of over-80s in the population is rising faster than men’s likelihood of surviving to 80. The changing sex ratio will sway the political outlook of the whole group.

Aside from gender ratios, there’s a considerable change in perspectives as seniors move from their late 60s to their 80s:

Old age comes later now. But when it comes, it changes people in the same way it always did. Women begin radically to outnumber men. (In 2010, the older-than-80 population included 4 million males and 7.2 million females). Personal savings are exhausted. (Average net worth drops by 25 percent between age 65 and age 75.) Dependency rises. Attitudes to government change.
The older you get, the more you appreciate Social Security and Medicare…and the more you mistrust proposals for reform that might affect current recipients. In 2009, 43 percent of people in their twenties were open to reforms in entitlements that might touch those now receiving Social Security and Medicare; only 27 percent of people in the strongly conservative groups older than 65 would consider it.
As yet, few published surveys break out the differences between people in their sixties and eighties. Working politicians notice it, though. As one very successful political operative told me, “The No. 1 concern of every voter over 80 is, ‘Will my check arrive on time?'”
There will soon be a lot more people digging in against benefits changes. The elderly population is poised to grow hugely quickly; the oldest of the old to grow faster still. Between 2000 and 2010, the total population grew 9.7 percent; the population older than 65, by 15.1 percent; the population older than 80, by 23 percent. That last group now numbers more than 11.2 million–and demographers expect it to grow even faster over the decades ahead.

All in all, Frum believes that as the Baby Boom generation ages, its Republican voting tendencies will abate and likely be reversed.

A vote’s a vote, of course, and it’s a huge mistake to think that pro-Republican groups will change while pro-Democratic groups will stay where they are. But particularly for those Democrats who are frustrated by the senior-driven Republican advantage in midterm elections, which makes multi-cycle Democratic progress so difficult, a more balanced senior demographic will be a most welcome development.

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