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Why the ‘Senior Voting Bloc’ is a Myth

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New America Media |

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Editor’s Note: While exit-polls may show that those aged 60 and older favored John McCain over Barack Obama on election day, closer analysis shows that the elderly are as diverse in politics as they are in almost every other social sphere. Paul Kleyman is the editor of Aging Today, the publication of the American Society of Aging. This is part of a series of NAM stories dedicated to ethnic elders in partnership with Atlantic Philanthropies.

For the first time, the vaunted senior bloc of voters -a rapidly growing group now accounting for 19 percent of the American electorate -favored the losing candidate in the presidential election, John McCain. Previously, seniors had always picked the winner. But as in all things political, the public needs to take a closer look before jumping to conclusions about the power of senior voters and the presumed conservatism -even racism -of the older generation.

“Assumptions that older persons vote as a ‘benefits bloc’ are wrong -up to now,” stated political scientist Robert Binstock, professor of aging, health and society at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Binstock, coauthor of Aging Nation: The Economics and Politics of Growing Old in America, addressed the myth of the senior voting bloc at the November meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in Washington, D.C. “For now, the elderly are as diverse in politics as they are in almost every other social sphere.”

Yet, he said, images of “greedy geezers” and, increasingly, the “me-generation” of aging boomers persist in mainstream media, usually promoted by conservative groups opposed to such programs as Social Security and Medicare.

To be sure, the nationwide vote of people 60 or older opposed the first major nonwhite presidential nominee in U.S. history. McCain pulled 51 percent of older voters to 47 percent for Barack Obama. However, this result was skewed by the heavy white vote in the deep southern and Appalachian states. According to The New York Times, “Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally.”

There’s a good bet that the 60-plus vote favored Obama outside of the South, said University of South Florida political analyst Susan A. MacManus, author of Targeting Senior Voters. She noted that exit polls in predominantly Democratic states showed “a majority of 65-plus voters supported Obama.” Examples of the Obama majority were Hawaii (69 percent), Minnesota (55 percent) and Oregon (56 percent).

These geographic differences point to the complications of age-based electoral analyses. Politicians keen on cornering the senior vote or the coveted motherload of aging boomers – the largest generation in history at 78 million strong in the United States -are sure to find that appeals based on “entitlement reform” may not alone tap the golden-years vote. To be successful, these issues have always depended on cross-generational support. For instance, it wasn’t only older people who stopped President Bush’s initiative to partially privatize Social Security four years ago. The opposition to that plan sliced across every age group.

Although seniors, and those now reaching their later years, have palpable social and political concerns, Binstock emphasized that the very nature of age brackets scatters older people across American space and time. Besides geography, he said, “Older voters will show signs of cohort and period effects.”

Seniors now aged 65-69 grew up in the Eisenhower ’50s, when post-war America was thriving and business was booming. Those now ages 60-64 spent their formative years in the Kennedy-Johnson period that promised a moon-shot future and churned with social turmoil.

Color and culture also break down the fictional senior-benefits bloc. According to 2008 exit polls, minority elders generally echoed others like them across the age span. For example, Binstock said, while 95 percent of young African Americans (ages 18-29) cast their votes for Obama in exit polls, 94 percent of black voters 65-plus also went for the man from Illinois. Meanwhile, older Latinos gave Obama an 86 percent margin, versus younger Latinos’ 76 percent.

What about the jumbo boomer generation, those from their early 40s to early 60s? Nationally boomers of all shades split their votes evenly, giving 49 percent to each candidate. But adding other factors reveal important group differences. Exit polls, for example, show that the biggest increase among African American voters came from the boomers. Their turnout jumped from 3 percent in 2004 to 4 percent in 2008, said David Bositis, senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., and a respected authority on the African American electorate.

Certainly, even a modest shift of interest among boomer voters—a spark of or slump in enthusiasm for a candidate or issue—could conceivably tilt an election. However, Binstock cautioned advocates for elders that the numbers can cut both ways.

Boomers, born from 1946 through 1964, are expected to double the ranks of those 65-plus by 2030 to 70 million. But Binstock notes that 75 percent of them will be non-minority. Without more enlightened approaches to education, healthcare and other issues, he said, conflicts might arise based on age and race.

“Will low-wage young minority workers want to pay payroll taxes to support entitlements for a large white older generation?” Binstock asked.

Binstock called on those hoping to see increased political support for such age-related issues as pension security and family caregiving to form new alliances and reframe the debate. “Old-age policies need to be better understood as family policies,” Binstock emphasized.

He concluded, “Most of us, of all ages, have a stake in old-age policies.”

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