Keep An Eye On Seniors

As President Obama and Governor Romney prepare to meet face to face in what can be described as an increasingly favorable political climate for Democrats, both sides admit that the polls will tighten in the final weeks leading up to election day. One constituency in particular – Americans over 65 – will play a critical role in deciding the final outcome.

Consider the following: in 2010, seniors voted for Republicans by a 21-point margin. This year, three of the top five heavily senior populated states (Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa) are up for grabs. Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate immediately put Medicare on the front burner and Democrats on the offensive, especially in Florida with recent gains among seniors. The approaching fiscal cliff debate, while unlikely to take center stage until after the election, by all accounts will result in changes to programs that seniors rely upon.

When it comes to Medicare, both sides are struggling to own the debate. The Obama campaign has repeatedly defended provisions in the Affordable Care Act that cut Medicare spending by $750 billion as nothing more than closing loopholes and limiting payments to providers. The Romney campaign, while still defending itself against comments that 47 percent of the American people are “victims” and rely on government programs (seniors are very much part of this number), have made a point to label the White House’s actions as “raiding” Medicare to pay for Obamacare.

As we enter the final stretch, both campaigns should keep in mind three key considerations:

First, seniors aren’t tied to one party or the other (at least not anymore). With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day and with retirement still out of reach for many of them, seniors will increasingly cast their vote based on pocketbook issues. If Romney and the Republicans fall further behind on the question of who would best provide leadership on the struggling economy, it’s likely that seniors would be poised to follow other core constituencies in voting for President Obama and reversing the 2010 21-point edge. Likewise, Republicans will maintain their advantage if Romney manages to improve in this area.

Second, seniors are more tuned in than ever before. Every poll I’ve conducted has shown that Americans over 65 pay close attention to domestic policy issues and reward candidates who defend key priorities. While the momentum is shifting back in the favor of the White House on Medicare broadly, one program (Part D) could be the president’s Achilles heel if not viewed within the context of political opportunities and consequences. A survey out this week by Medicare Today shows that 90 percent of seniors approve of their prescription drug coverage, with both Democrats and Republicans equally favoring the program. Despite being a target for Democrats in the past, taking on Part D carries a significant amount of political risk that the Obama campaign cannot afford as both sides prepare to make their closing arguments. Part D is a huge positive for candidates willing to embrace it and has been under discussed on the campaign trail up to this point.

And needless to say, given the concerns that have been raised about the impact the Ryan plan potentially will have, Republicans also need to take particular care not to appear to question an extraordinarily popular program that was, after all, proposed and passed by a Republican President and Republican Congress.

Third, with early voting already underway, it’s important to keep in mind that seniors rank among the fastest growing demographics online. A 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that social networking use among Internet users ages 50 and older grew from 22 percent in April 2009 to 42 percent in May 2010. Relying on traditional methods to reach and empower seniors, while effective in previous election cycles, underestimates the role that these voters are playing in driving the conversation online.

Without question, seniors are far more connected than ever and have yet to make up their minds. Policy positions, not rhetoric, will ultimately win the day with this critical voting bloc. Candidates who make this a priority will benefit. In a close election, this could help turn the tide one way or the other.