'Active grannies' the new soccer moms
Despite all the talk about this election being driven by the youth vote, America as a nation has never been older and the power of the senior vote has never been greater.
In the relentless quest to find the soccer moms of this election, perhaps the answer will be found in the “active granny” vote — empty-nesters who have found a new freedom in their lives after the kids have left and who look at the world very differently than do their kids graduating college. The seniors of today may not be the so-called Greatest Generation, but they sure are the biggest generation — and their voting power has been compounded by the dramatic expansion in average life expectancy that’s occurred since they were born.
In 1976, voters older than 60 accounted for just 15 percent of the electorate. In 2004, they were 24 percent — a nearly 70-point jump in their voting strength. And the under-30 vote in 1976 was nearly 30 percent, so young people actually had a 2-1 edge. That has disappeared in recent years as the senior vote has surpassed the youth vote in sheer numbers. History also shows some similar, if less dramatic, changes: In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president, most Americans were below the age of 45. Today that has been reversed in the census figures, with oldsters having a 4-point edge over those under 45.
And what has been the key vote in the two states — Florida and Ohio — that have been central to the outcome of the last few elections? The senior vote. Pennsylvania is possibly in play only because its voting population is the second-oldest in the Union. The industrial heartland tilts older for a simple reason — older voters have been left behind as their sons and daughters seek better jobs in other parts of the country.
Importantly, it turns out that, rather than being averse to change, seniors have often been the leaders of change, serving as key bellwethers. In fact, they have picked the popular vote winner in every single election since 1952, with one exception: choosing Richard Nixon over Kennedy in 1960.
Long regarded as core Democratic voters thankful for Social Security and Medicare, seniors’ voting outlook is no longer defined by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson. Instead, they cast two votes that define them: They overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1980 and also were the strongest supporters of Bill Clinton in 1992. In fact, despite all the talk of his popularity with youth, Clinton won the senior vote in 1992 by a wider margin (12 points) than he did the under-30 vote (10 points).
The lifestyles of these seniors have been undergoing some changes over the last few years. Rather than retire, about half of American seniors now expect to keep working — half of them because they need the money, and the other half because they now see work as part of an “active retirement.”
Today’s seniors are hardly monolithic in their outlook. Men have gotten increasingly grumpy — they believe that the country has had a fundamental break in values from the past, and they’re upset with what they see as a youth that does not have to work as hard as they did to succeed. But they are a group that can be very attracted to one of Barack Obama’s primary election proposals: eliminating all income taxes for the first $50,000 of income for everyone over age 65. The Obama camp hit a bull’s-eye with this proposal, which has little economic justification but is great politics.
Senior women, on the other hand, tend to be more concerned with what they consider essential — Social Security and health care — two subjects that have been largely missing from campaign rhetoric in the past month.