The ‘gray vote’ may take the cake on Tuesday

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 4, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Thankfully, and with a little luck, the 2012 presidential election will be over in two days – with a decision sometime Tuesday night.

Many thought much of the 2012 campaign would be about “senior issues” – such as strategies to “save” Social Security and Medicare.

However, both President Obama and Governor Romney assured later-life Americans that reforms essential to the survival of these two entitlements will apply only to those under 55 years of age. In the words of Governor Romney, “Nothing changes for current seniors or those nearing retirement.”

At that point, both sides turned to other issues.  Result: Two of the issues most important to retirees or those planning for retirement were taken off the table – though voters were still exposed to occasional “Granny over the cliff” ads by Democrats along with Republican “reminders” that Obama had copped $716 billion from Medicare to pay for ObamaCare.

After that, depending on who you listened to, we “learned” that the election would be decided by the “Latino vote” – or the “youth vote,” or the “gay vote” or the “women’s vote” – after which the candidates would address the issues on the agenda of the week’s favorite “decisive” voting bloc: immigration, student loans, gay marriage or abortion rights.

Once the two big “senior issues” were moved to the sidelines, the senior voting bloc was largely ignored by the media.  I’m referring here to the “gray vote” – i.e., the voting habits and preferences of older Americans – the Silent Generation (born 1928-45) that is largely retired and the 78 million Boomers (born 1946-64) who began to turn 65 in 2011.

So what do we know about the “gray vote?”

First, 60 years of survey research, going back to the 1950s, shows that older Americans register to vote in larger numbers and turn out to vote in larger numbers – and do so more consistently – than any other age group.   Young people, by contrast, consistently have the lowest turnout.

And seniors get a lot of encouragement to vote.  In Maryland, we have early voting, which makes voting more convenient for everyone, including seniors. Here in Annapolis, for example, retirement communities such as Ginger Cove assist residents with paperwork required for absentee voting and provide transportation to early-voting venues.  On election day, the community will have a continuous shuttle service transporting residents to the polling place and back.

Second, the “gray vote” is growing – nation-wide and in Maryland.  In 2008, exit polls showed that 16 percent of the voters were 65 or older.  According to AARP, the number of age 65+ voters will rise to 21 percent of all voters in 2012.  An additional 19 percent between the age 55 and 64 will go to the polls this year.  In short, 40 percent of the voters in 2012 are likely to be “gray voters” in their bonus years.

Third, issue areas of later-life Americans are not limited to Social Security and Medicare.  Not even close.  All you have to do is visit a senior center in Annapolis, a book club or a quilters group composed of older adults and listen to the conversations to see that those in or approaching retirement care about many of the same issues that concern all Americans – declining home values, rising health care costs, the need to simplify taxes, affordable housing, unease with government deficits, rising public debt and the burdens we are placing on our grandchildren.

Fourth, 10 of the 13 frequently mentioned “toss-up” states that will decide the election are among the “age haven” states of America, states where 13-17 percent of the population is 65 or older.  Of the “toss-up” states – FL, NC, VA, PA, and NH in the East; OH, MI, WI and IA in the Midwest; and AZ, CO, NV and OR in the West – all are “age haven” states with the exception of Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.

Fifth, in the 11 elections since 1968, later-life voters have voted Republican in all but three.  For example, voters age 65 and older backed John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, 53 percent to 45 percent.  A recent Gallup poll showed Romney and Obama splitting the age 50-64 vote 50/50.  However, Romney was winning the age 65+ vote by 56/44.

Sixth, an important partisan shift has occurred in the composition of the electorate since 2008.  In the last presidential contest, according to Gallup, Democrats enjoyed a 12-point advantage in party identification.  Today, that advantage no longer exists.  Instead, in the words of Gallup, voters are “about as likely to identify as or lean Republican as to identify as or lean Democrat…[consequently] the electorate has become less Democratic and more Republican in its political orientation.”

Finally, there is the matter of motivation – what the pollsters call “voter intensity.”  Intensity measures how strongly the potential voter feels a personal stake in the outcome of the election and therefore is likely to turn out to vote; or a voter’s strong, personal commitment to the candidate, a commitment that can be affected by a candidate’s past performance – in business, elected office, the military, etc. – or his performance during the course of the campaign, such as in the debates or responding to a natural disaster.

This year, polling evidence suggests that voter intensity among some of Obama’s core constituents – e.g., Blacks and young people – is much lower than 2008.  If true, that reduced motivation will translate into lower turnout and fewer votes among two groups that supported the Obama with large majorities in 2008.

By contrast, polling evidence reveals high Republican voter intensity, higher than the Democrats in 2012 and that of the Republicans in 2008.  Indeed, according to one veteran Republican observer, “The excitement and enthusiasm [for Romney] is equal to what I saw during Ronald Reagan’s first campaign.”  If that is true, Republican intensity may be a harbinger of higher voter turnout and more votes for Romney.

So, what does all this mean for 2012?  Civic engagement of older Americans is alive and well, a fact missed by the media’s obsession with the youth vote and the women’s vote.  These facts and data also suggest that the “gray vote” is tilted to the Republicans and may have a big influence on the outcome of this year’s presidential contest – especially in the toss-up states.  Indeed, a good case can be made that GOP voter intensity plus support from bonus years voters will provide the margin of victory that will make Mitt Romney the next president of the US. We are likely to know for sure in just 72 hours.

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