SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. — At a recent, community-wide congressional debate in the high school cafeteria here, journalists were scouring the crowd looking for younger voters, the demographic that burst onto the political scene in 2008 and helped put Barack Obama in the White House.
They couldn’t find any.
They did, however, find Don Potter, the founder and editor of NewSeniors.com – a website written by and for those just turning 65 to foster debate and discussion on issues seniors care about.
Mr. Potter says most seniors he knows are energized by this election because they are “scared” about issues such as health care, taxes, Social Security, and education. He represents a voter demographic that is growing, unifying, and – according to several analysts – likely to wield more power in this midterm election than at any time in decades.
Seniors and baby boomers are more engaged in the election and more excited about voting than any preelection polling has found since 1994, according to the Pew Research Center. While it was considered to be youth that ushered in the Obama revolution, it is the older generation that is wielding more power now.
‘Freight train coming’
“This is a very important story that is being overlooked by the press,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and author of “You Call This An Election? America’s Peculiar Democracy.”
“This is a freight train coming at 100 miles per hour, it’s going to be huge,” adds Fred Lynch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and author of “The Fight for Medicare, Social Security and the American Future.”
He and others say today’s election is the starting point of a phenomenon that will really accelerate from January 2011 through 2030, when Boomers will turn 65 at the rate of one every ten seconds for nearly two straight decades.
According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, those 65 and older account for about 12.5 percent of eligible voters, but could reach close to 30 percent of voters today. “New Seniors are enormously important, especially in midterm elections,” Mr. Rasmussen said in an interview with NewSeniors.com. “They vote more than their numbers in every election cycle, but in midterms the numbers go up dramatically.”
In a nutshell, this explains part of the well-chronicled trouble for Democrats that many analysts predict will give the US House back to the Republicans.
Rasmussen, Potter, Mr. Lynch, and others say the issues most important to this demographic will impact races for governor, the House, and Senate. New seniors are more opposed to the health-care law than younger adults, for example, partly because of the fear of change, partly because they fear the planned cuts in Medicare, but mostly, says Potter, “because senior citizens interact with the health-care system more than anybody else.”
Fears about the weak economy are another motivator. Seven in 10 workers plan to work after retiring and today are most likely to say President Obama’s policies made the economy worse, according to the independent nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute, based in Washington. (Six in 10 workers approved of Mr. Obama in week one of his presidency, says the institute, but only about 4 in 10 do so today.)
No lack of enthusiasm
Much is being made of the “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats, but there’s no lack of enthusiasm when it comes to older voters. Eighty-four percent of seniors who are registered to vote say they will “definitely” vote, says the Pew center, a figure that is 9 percent higher than the previous record in 1994.
Senior voters reflect, and strengthen, the prevailing national trends. The senior surge, like the electorate overall, is coming from the right, writes David Paul Kuhn, chief political correspondent for RealClearPolitics, an online political news and polling data aggregator.
“Democratic seniors and baby boomers are less engaged than past midterms,” he writes in an Oct. 18 article.
Mr. Kuhn points out that Democrats have always struggled with seniors, but this year is worse. Seniors favor electing a Republican in their district by 53 to 35 percent, whereas in their best years Democrats split the senior vote in 2006 and won the larger 60-plus bloc as they did in two Reagan-era midterms.
“This is why the president and all his surrogates from Michelle [Obama] to Bill Clinton are concentrating on college campuses, because they see more of the senior vote going Republican over all the issues key to seniors,” says Hal Dash, president and CEO of Cerrell & Accociates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm.
“Many former liberals and Democrats are becoming more conservative as they enter retirement and are absolutely concerned that their kids won’t have the benefits [or] income lifestyle that [they] enjoyed.”