Older Voters and the 2010 U.S. Election

Implications for 2012 and Beyond?

Robert H. Binstock; PhD


Gerontologist. 2012;52(3):408-417. 

In This Article

Long-standing Myths and Realities Regarding Older Voters

For many decades, journalists and political consultants have focused on older persons as an important voter demographic. A perennial journalistic cliché is, seniors are a key battleground in this election. Parallel pronouncements are made by political consultants. Yet, historically, these types of observations have been inaccurate.

High Voting Rate but Relatively Small Percentage of Voters

Why have clichés about the importance of seniors as a voting constituency persisted? One reason is that older persons vote at a high rate compared with some other age groups. Figure 1 shows that in the presidential election of 1972, the first year that all 18- to 20-year-olds in the nation were allowed to vote, the age group of 45- to 64-year-olds had the highest rate of participation (71%). However, since 1988, persons aged 65 and older have had the highest rates of participation (although not much higher than the rates for voters aged 45–64).

Figure 1.

Voting turnout, by age groups, in U.S. presidential elections, 1972–2008.

Why do older persons vote at a higher rate than younger persons? One contributing factor to comparatively high turnout rates in old age is the accumulated sheer habit of voting (Plutzer, 2002). In addition, interest and knowledge about politics increase with age (declining only slightly at advanced old ages) as does strength of party attachment; both factors elevate the likelihood that a potential voter will actually turn out to vote. Still another factor is age group differences in voting registration, an essential precursor to voting. A two-stage study of voter registration and turnout in U.S. national elections (Timpone, 1998) found that increased age (from 18 to 88) is directly related to increases in registration. This relationship between registration rates and increasing age is also found in Europe (Goerres, 2009).

Nonetheless, the fact that older voters participate in elections at a relatively high rate does not by itself account for the attention they receive. As Figure 2 indicates, older people are far from the largest age group in the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, Americans aged 45–64 cast 38% of the vote, and those aged 25–44 accounted for 36% compared with only 16% by persons aged 65 and older.

Figure 2.

Percent of total vote cast by age groups in U.S. presidential elections, 1972–2008.

Seniors as Objects of Election Campaign Attention

Despite the fact that seniors constitute a relatively small percentage of those who vote, they get substantial attention from campaign consultants and strategists, candidates, and journalists because in theory, "the senior vote" may be swayed by campaign efforts. Older people have not been predominantly committed to one political party. Moreover, based on a classic model of economists, seniors are perceived as "program constituents" that are highly inclined to maximize their self-interests in Social Security, Medicare, and other governmental old-age benefits. These programs give them steady incomes, contribute to their improved health, free their time by making retirement a reality, augment their interest in politics by tying their well-being so visibly to government policy, and boost their feelings of political efficacy as politicians prove sensitive to their desires. In effect, the government has created, from an otherwise disparate population, a group identity as benefit recipients, which in turn generates a basis for efforts by political parties and interest groups to mobilize seniors politically (Campbell, 2003).

Presidential candidates have frequently addressed "senior issues" on the campaign trail, usually to portray themselves as champions for old age–benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare and to make sure that their opponents do not best them in this strategy. Since John F. Kennedy's campaign for president in 1960, senior-citizen committees, "senior desks," and other types of special structures targeting older voters have been established within election campaigns (Binstock & Riemer, 1978; Pratt, 1976). Their aims are to register older voters, promulgate issue appeals to maintain and enhance the allegiance of these voters, and then ensure that they turn out to vote. To do this, senior campaigns emphasize issues intended to appeal to older persons through methods commonly used to target other voting constituencies—robocalls, E-mail blasts, direct mail, and television and radio ads; letters to the editor (vetted by higher echelons in the campaign); and appearances by the candidate or surrogates—members of Congress, state and local office holders, celebrities, and academics—before targeted audiences.

Such common efforts to reach out to particular groups of voters have some dimensions that are special in the case of seniors (see Davidson & Binstock, in press). One such dimension is that events featuring candidates and surrogates can be held in a great many venues where retired older voters can be easily targeted and—unlike voters who are still in the labor force—are available as audiences on weekdays. These venues include senior centers, congregate meal sites, retirement communities, public housing projects for the elderly, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, AARP conferences, and the like. In June 2010, for instance, with an eye to the upcoming fall elections, President Obama went to a senior center in Maryland to host a "tele-town-hall" meeting that was transmitted to 100 retirement communities and other senior venues throughout the nation in which he touted the fact that the federal government (in accordance with recent health care legislation) was about to send $250 checks to about 4 million Medicare beneficiaries to help them pay for their prescription drugs (Stolberg, 2010).

These various strategies for targeting seniors during election campaigns are used because political consultants and parties know that seniors are a swing group that turns out to vote at a relatively high rate. At the same time, the fact that they have been contacted makes seniors more likely to vote (Campbell, 2005).

Historically, Little Indication of Old-age Bloc Voting

Despite election campaign efforts to target older voters with "senior issues" and special "senior campaign" structures, old age–benefit issues have not had a discernable impact on their electoral choices over the years. As shown in Figure 3, in the last 10 presidential elections, all age groups except the youngest (ages 18–29) distributed their votes among candidates in roughly the same proportions. This should not be surprising when one considers that old age is only one of many personal characteristics of older voters with which they may identify. There is little reason to expect that a birth cohort—diverse in economic and social status, labor force participation, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, health status, family status, residential locale, political party attachments, and other characteristics in society—would suddenly become homogenized in self-interests and political behavior when it reaches old age. Even with respect to old-age benefits, the degree and intensity of self-interest can vary substantially. For instance, Social Security accounts for 83% of income for seniors in the lowest income quintile, while it provides only 18% for those in the highest quintile (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2010).

Figure 3.

Percent voting for Republican U.S. presidential candidates, by age groups, 1972–2008.

Because candidates are on the ballot, not old-age benefits, many other considerations may be on an older voter's mind. Among them are the characteristics of the candidates—including charisma, experience, ideological positions, and ethnicity and race—as well as a plethora of issues such as the state of the economy and social values and foreign policy issues.

Old-age benefits were not a prominent feature in the 2008 election when the Great Recession and its various economic effects took center stage. But even in campaigns when old-age benefits have been well-publicized issues, they have had no discernible impact on the distribution of votes by older voters. The 1984 election provides a particularly striking example. During President Reagan's first term in office, 1981–1984, he presided over a freeze in Social Security's annual cost-of-living adjustment and proposed additional direct cuts in benefits (Light, 1985). When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, the Democratic campaign against him highlighted these actions to portray the President as an enemy of Social Security. Yet, as shown in Table 1, older voters substantially increased their support for Reagan from 54% in 1980 to 60% in 1984, paralleling the large increase provided by the electorate as a whole.

Persistence of the Bloc Voting Myth

Despite the lack of evidence for old-age bloc voting over the years, there are several reasons the image of older persons as bloc voters swayed by "senior issues" has persisted. First, it has helped journalists to reduce the intricate complexities of electoral politics down to something easy to write about a tabloid symbol—"the powerful old-age vote." Second, and more important, politicians tend to share the widespread perception that there is a huge monolithic senior citizen army of voters (Peterson & Somit, 1994). This perception is reinforced by the fact that a great many older citizens are generally quite active in making their views known to members of Congress, especially when proposals arise for cutting back on Social Security, Medicare, or other old-age benefits (Campbell, 2003). Hence, politicians have generally been wary of "waking a sleeping giant" of angry older voters. They have sought to position themselves in fashions that they think will appeal to the self-interests of older voters and have usually taken care that their opponents do not gain an advantage in this arena. So even though older persons do not vote as a bloc, they have had an impact on election campaign strategies and have often led incumbents to be concerned about how their actions in the governing process, such as votes in Congress, can be portrayed to older voters in subsequent reelection campaigns. Third, the image of a senior voting bloc is marketed by the leaders of old-age–based interest groups. These organizations—such as AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the National Alliance of Retired Americans—have had strong incentives to inflate perceptions of the voting cohesion of the constituency for which they purport to speak.


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