Candidates Who Ignore Older Voters Do So At Their Peril

With less than a month until Election Day, political campaigns are in high gear, and party control of Congress, Governor’s mansions and state houses are on the line. The landscape is volatile to say the least. But, one thing is certain . . . candidates who ignore older voters do so at their peril.

At AARP, we spend a lot of time listening and looking at data to understand Americans age 50 and up and their engagement in the political process. What we find is that year after year, election cycle after election cycle, older voters are the largest, reliable voting bloc. FULL STOP. Millennials and other young Americans may be the majority of ELIGIBLE voters, but they have yet to show up at the polls commensurate with their numbers.

Most recently, AARP looked at voter file data in the 42 states that track age and found that, in 2016, Americans age 50 and up made up 56% of the national electorate and were at least half of the electorate in all of the 42 states. We also know that older voters historically play an even larger role in mid-term Congressional elections. According to the U.S. Census Current Population Survey, voters age 45 and over have made up more than 60% of the voting population in every mid-term election since 2006, reaching 70% in 2014.

These trends will likely continue this year. In a recent Washington Post / ABC poll, 79 percent of registered voters age 40 to 64 and 82 percent of those age 65 and up say they are “ABSOLUTELY” going to vote in 2018. That’s more than 12 points higher than the 18 – 39 year old demographic.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that older voters are not a monolithic – or static – group.  For a number of cycles, Republican candidates have counted on their support, and that’s certainly been the trend in recent presidential elections according to exit poll data. But, when we look a little bit deeper, we see some big differences. Older minority voters, particularly African-American voters, consistently vote for Democratic candidates, and, older women tend to be more Democratic than older men.

In a lot of ways, voters age 50 and up are the ultimate swing voters. In 2016, the 50+ voted for the winning Senate candidate in 17 out of 19 races where we have exit poll data by age – cutting across both red and blue states. And, the conventional wisdom that being older means you are more conservative may be starting to shift.  Vietnam War protest era Boomers have turned 65 and the oldest Gen Xers – children of the Reagan Era – are now in their early 50’s.

Setting aside political party, there is a lot of common ground when it comes to the issues that older voters care about. A recent AARP survey found that the biggest worry for older voters across party lines is how divided America has become. And, when we asked about issues that are important to their voting decisions, health care costs rose to the top. We see strong bipartisan consensus around many of the health care issues that have been debated in Congress over the last year:

  • Protecting the Medicare Part D donut hole deal that lowers seniors’ out of pocket costs on prescription drugs received overwhelming support. 73% of Republicans, 80% of Democrats, and 81% of Independents say they oppose Congress granting drug companies’ request to renege on that deal.
  • There is also overwhelming strong bipartisan support for AARP’s positions opposing the “age tax” (80% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats and 84% of Independents) and maintaining protections for people with pre-existing conditions (73% of Republicans, 93% of Democrats and 83% of Independents)).
  • Another 80% issue is the medical expense deduction and ensuring that the income threshold stays at 7.5 percent.
  • Older voters also agree that Medicare should be allowed to negotiate for lower drug prices – though with more of a party split . . . 75% among Democrats, 57% among Republicans and 66% of Independents.
  • And, older voters across party lines also overwhelmingly agree that older Americans should be protected from age discrimination just as strongly as they are protected from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion.

The time is now for candidates to engage with older Americans and talk to them about the issues that really matter. Yes, Medicare and Social Security, but also how we can lower health care costs, make sure there is a level playing field for older workers, and be more unified as a country. AARP is conducting an intensive voter outreach and education campaign called “Be the Difference. Vote.” We’re encouraging our members and other older Americans to vote on November 6, and we’re reminding candidates for office that older voters will likely be the ones who decide the elections.

Nancy LeaMond is AARP chief advocacy and engagement officer. She leads the organization’s Communities, State and National Group, including government relations, advocacy and public education for AARP’s social change agenda. LeaMond also has responsibility for AARP’s state operation, which includes offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
You can follow her on Twitter @NancyLeaMond.

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