The Slow Partisan Shift of America’s Elderly

The elderly vote is powerful, persistent, and dependable. It has been so for decades, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. In the 2016 presidential election, 71 percent of Americans over the age of 65 voted, while only 46 percent of 18- to 29-year olds cast votes. Despite higher levels of physical disability and increased difficulty in getting to the polls, the elderly consistently get out to vote and have the ability to greatly impact the outcomes of elections. They have been a consistently Republican voting bloc for decades, and Democrats often overlook them as unswayable. However, the group’s fiscal priorities are beginning to come into conflict with harsh conservative budget cuts by Republicans, and Democrats have a chance to capitalize upon this newly dissatisfied demographic.

The elderly have immense — and often overlooked — power on the legislative front as well. Their main source of lobbying, the AARP, is perhaps the most powerful lobbyist group in DC, and these lobbyists have huge sway in terms of actual legislation that gets passed. AARP lobbyists are present and persistent in the Capitol; 50+ lobbyists are regularly registered with the powerful group in DC, spending millions of dollars annually on efforts to influence and convince legislators. Most of this hefty sum of lobbying money goes to the protection of two programs specifically geared to benefit elderly, retired Americans: Social Security and Medicare.

The AARP holds this immense power partially due to their efficient and effective recruitment methods. The group is open to anyone over the age of 50, and requires only a $16 fee per year to join. The benefits of joining are wide-reaching, from employment protections to discounts registered with thousands of nationwide businesses, drawing a whopping 38 million person membership.

"Elderly individuals’ fiscal priorities are beginning to come into conflict with harsh conservative budget cuts by Republicans, and Democrats have a chance to capitalize upon this newly dissatisfied demographic."

The specific views of the elderly tend to be more homogenous than those of other age groups. The majority of elderly voters consistently back the Republican party, and tend to have more socially conservative views, in line with those of the past. Additionally, the elderly are statistically whiter than other age groups in America; while this is undoubtedly changing as demographic shifts in youth manifest upwards over time, today’s elderly population reflects the youth of America 40 years ago, which was significantly whiter than it is now. In truth, the American public sees the elderly population as relatively monolithic and predictable; Republicans tend to take their support for granted, while Democrats tend to wave them off as a lost cause.

The elderly are also intensely invested in very specific pieces of legislation, consistently mobilizing around Medicare and Social Security specifically. Whereas younger people are often divided on policy issues, the legislative priorities of the elderly are nearly unanimous. However, this is where the elderly are beginning to come into conflict with the changing Republican party that they have historically, consistently supported.

This Republican party, especially under the House leadership of Paul Ryan, has become increasingly fiscally conservative. Tax and budget cuts have resulted in a decrease in funding for major social programs put on by the government: namely, Medicare and Social Security. These two social programs are virtually sacred to the elderly voting bloc, and they tend to support candidates who support these programs.

As the elderly have begun to realize that Republicans aren’t going to necessarily protect these social programs that are so important to the demographic, they’ve become disillusioned, and have begun to – very slowly – shift away from the party. This provides a massive opportunity for the Democrats to capitalize upon; the elderly have often been seen as consistently Republican and simply overlooked by Democrats in terms of campaign targeting. However, the slow shift of this voting bloc towards the partisan center could bring them into play on the national scale, and could absolutely sway elections, as their formidable voting power demonstrates.

National polling shows that the elderly population is indeed moving towards the center, although the shift is undoubtedly slow. The issue lies in competing cultural and fiscal views; the elderly tend to culturally associate with the Republican party, as it represents the social conservatism of past times, to which the elderly population is accustomed. However, their desire to sustain important social welfare programs comes into conflict with this culturally partisan association. Additionally, as time goes on, this Republican cultural association is slowly beginning to dissipate, pushing the elderly population slightly towards the middle.

So how exactly do Democrats begin to capture the elderly vote? The answer lies largely in symbolic politics rather than specific policies and pieces of legislation. Much of this symbolism comes in the form of representation; Democrats are continuously pushing older candidates out of the party leadership. While Republicans gather behind older leaders like Donald Trump (72), Mitch McConnell (76), and Jeff Sessions (71), Democrats preemptively declare their elderly leaders – such as Bernie Sanders (77), Hillary Clinton (71), and Joe Biden (76) – as just too old to lead. These elderly leaders are pushed to move out of the party to make way for younger candidates, and as the Democratic establishment pushes them out, they’re sending a clear message to elderly populations that they aren’t represented or valued.

While increased representation is one route for Democrats to earn back the trust of the elderly, media also remains a significant route to come into touch with this population. As many progressive Democrats have turned to social media as their primary source of outreach to their younger constituents, they’ve left behind constituents who simply don’t use social media: specifically, the elderly. Not only do forms of media that cater to the elderly need to be taken up by Democrats, but the party’s media also needs to cater to this older demographic. The message must be clear: Democrats are the ones that are going to protect your Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are making cuts to these programs. Democrats are here to protect the elderly.

Finally, aligning with major groups that determine the views of the elderly is vital for Democrats trying to capture the elderly vote. Specifically, the AARP has incredible sway over the political opinions of this demographic, and it has been controlled by Republicans for decades. Democrats must begin to filter their elderly leaders into this interest group in order to gain some traction among elderly populations whose political decisions often revolve around the advice of the AARP.

The Democratic party is riding a progressive wave at the time, focused on the future and newer, younger demographic groups. While progressivism seems to be taking over as the ideology of the party, its makeup cannot only consist of young people directed toward the future if the party wants to survive. While this progressive wave can be ridden ideologically, it is crucial for the progression of the party to capture the support of multiple demographics, including the elderly. Democrats must take advantage of this historically Republican but increasingly dissatisfied population through elderly representation in party leadership, media catering to older constituents, and connections with the AARP. This is a virtually untapped well of voter potential, and these steps could result in huge gains for Democrats across the country.

Photo: President Barack Obama hugs a woman who lost a loved one, during the memorial service for victims of the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, May 29, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

About the Author

Matthew Bailey '21 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Matthew can be reached at matthew_bailey@brown.edu

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