We Hear You, but Do the Candidates?

I spent an evening recently watching a focus group — a moderated conversation about the election and Social Security with 30 undecided voters. For those of us in Washington, D.C., who are around policy and politics all the time, it’s very helpful to hear what “real people” think. The group included men and women, from young adults voting in just their second presidential election to older voters who have witnessed a lifetime of political promises.

Maybe that’s where the cynicism comes from — and there was a tremendous amount of cynicism. After years of being bombarded with negative ads and sound bites, these voters have stopped listening. The 24/7 news cycle and flood of social media content — good, bad and ugly — has sped up this life cycle for millennials.

These voters are more than just undecided. They’re distrustful, and some are downright angry about their choices. The group’s moderator took them through different exercises — reading things that candidates have said and watching a selection of campaign ads and candidate videos. They don’t believe most of what they hear, and they like even less.

So how can a candidate break through?

One way is to make sure the candidates are asked the right questions. Voters may be tuning out a lot of the campaign noise, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have thoughts about important policy choices — or want to hear where the candidates stand.

In the same session, our undecided voters had a fairly robust and reasoned discussion about Social Security — the shortfall the program faces and what our elected officials should do to fix it. They believe Social Security is important and are frustrated by Washington’s inability to come up with a bipartisan solution to what they think is a solvable problem. They said they wanted the presidential candidates to talk honestly about their plans, and the majority said the next president should take action during the first year of the new administration.

This takeaway is consistent with recent polling performed by AARP on voters and Social Security.

This week’s presidential debate is an ideal platform to spur a discussion between the candidates. Last week, I sent a letter to Lester Holt, the debate’s moderator, urging him to ask a question about the future of Social Security.

That’s step one. But candidates — you need to do better answering the question if you want to be heard. These voters don’t trust you — at all. But they want to be able to believe what you say. You’ll have to work hard to earn back their trust.

Be specific about what you support, what you don’t and why. These voters are tired of generalities. They understand the options and want to know what you will do. They are more concerned with protecting benefits for future retirees than expanding the program. So, if you want to expand benefits, you’ll need to explain how you’ll pay for it and why you think it’s important to expand a program that they feel is under threat.

Most of all: Be honest. If the real answer will take more than 30 seconds, say so. If it means not everyone will get everything they want, say that. If you expect those who can to sacrifice a little to support those less fortunate, tell them why that’s important to you — and to the country.

The glass-half-empty view is that this is a year of cynicism. The glass-half-full perspective is that 2016 is the year of authenticity. If this group of undecided voters is anything to go by, there just might be something positive going on — if only the candidates will step up and give them what they want.

Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy and engagement officer and executive vice president of AARP for community, state and national affairs, leads 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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