First, it's important not to lump everyone older than 50 into a single voter category. Voters age 65 and older backed John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, 53 percent to 45 percent. Baby boomers ages 50 to 64 voted for the president by a slim 50 percent to 49 percent margin. Recent polls show these tendencies still hold true. Obama's edge with younger voters disappears with age, and Mitt Romney has a decided edge with voters over 65.
Second, the importance of the senior vote has continued to grow as the country turns grayer. In 2008, exit polls found that 16 percent of voters were 65 or older. Demographic research earlier this year put the figure at 21 percent for the 2012 election. An additional 19 percent of the electorate is expected to be between 55 and 64 this year. Nearly half the electorate is eligible to join AARP.
Third, despite all the lip service paid to the youth vote, seniors are the most likely demographic group to make it to the polls. "They're registered to vote, and fully 90 to 95 percent of our members say they plan to vote in all elections," says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of 37-million member AARP.
In the nine swing states that are expected to decide the presidency, here are the age splits for voter turnouts in both 2008 and 2004, based on U.S. Census data provided by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald.
|Swing States in 2012 Election|
|Voter Turnout by Age, 2008 National Election (percentage)|
|Swing States in 2012 Election|
|Voter Turnout by Age, 2004 National Election (percentage)|
In every state but Wisconsin, turnout in 2008 was generally higher across all age groups than in 2004. "We tend to be all in the same boat, with turnout rising and decreasing from one presidential election to the next," McDonald says. Voter engagement is widely expected to be even higher in 2012, which will tend to make the senior voting bloc even more important.
Fourth, the key issues of healthcare and retirement security have risen in relative importance among seniors. The slow improvement in the economy and jobs numbers has reduced the importance of these issues, but not longer-term concerns. AARP researched these issues earlier this year, and has been pounding away to elevate the dialog about Medicare and Social Security. The group's "You Have a Say" campaign has involved thousands of town hall meetings and directly engaged an estimated 3 million people. Finding a job is still a very important issue, LeaMond says, but perhaps not as high on seniors' lists as paying for healthcare or funding retirement.
Fifth, aging baby boomers may have even stronger concerns about entitlement issues than people who are already retired. This age group of 50- to 64-year-olds is close enough to retirement to be actively thinking about it, and would also be affected by Medicare and Social Security reforms. The healthcare and retirement income pictures for already retired Americans are, for better or worse, not likely to change. All major proposals for Medicare and Social Security stress that they will not affect benefits for current seniors.
Sixth, as important as entitlement issues are in shaping senior votes, the Medicare dialog has seldom extended deeper than top-level charges by each candidate that their opponent would gut the program. And Social Security has been a non-issue during the campaign, although every expert says the program needs attention to address long-term funding shortfalls.
"It's going to be interesting for us to watch the roles that Medicare and Social Security are going to play" in the election, says LeaMond. "I think there is still time for all older voters to ask the candidates to be more specific in their visions," she advises, "and about how to sustain Social Security and Medicare not only for themselves, but also for future generations."