The Most Powerful Voting Bloc

Megan McArdle is an Atlantic Monthly writer whose grandmother lives in Newark, NY.  Newark is a few miles North of the 29th district, but like a number of towns in the Southern 29th, its population is older than the national average.  McArdle thinks Newark is what the rest of the country will look like as the baby boom generation gets older.  In her article in this month's edition, she makes a number of political observations that are relevant to the election in the 29th.

McArdle notes that the needs of the elderly will push the economy towards more service, which in turn will probably mean slower growth (since productivity grows slower in the service sector than in manufacturing).  Slow growth coupled with increases in Social Security and Medicare will lead to higher taxes, benefit cuts and higher retirement ages:

The political battles over all of this will be bitter, and they will probably be, too often, won by the retirees, who vote in force (though not always as a bloc). Those same retirees may also vote against things that are actually in their interest—thus shutting out the immigrants who could help them stay at home, and out of the nursing home, longer; turning down school taxes that could create a more productive workforce to support them; fighting for zoning restrictions that make it harder for the low-income workers who provide their services to live within easy commuting distance.

McArdle's view of seniors as voters who turn out in force is evident in the politics of the 29th.  For example, possibly most effective ad of the last cycle was one that claimed that Eric Massa would raise taxes and cut social security.  It was aimed squarely at elderly voters, since it focused on the biggest fears of old people living on a fixed income.   Even though it was essentially false, I don't think anyone seriously doubts that it put some votes in Kuhl's column.

In the current cycle, the Bush Administration's budget, which has a $200 billion cut in Medicare, might lead to an ad from Democrats aimed at seniors.  The Republicans well-honed sense of self-preservation will probably kick in before that happens, however, and the cut will almost certainly be removed in committee.  

If they raise any money, RNCC may try to claim that Democrats want to insure illegal aliens in S-CHIP at the expense of the elderly.  Their "sniper" ad from last cycle shows that they'll use any excuse to scare the crap out of older voters.

Aside from the fact that they scare easily, the elderly are also more easily reached than the younger Internet- and cell-phone-using population.  Grandma doesn't have Tivo, and she watches the local TV news, so she's likely to see a paid commercial.  She also has a landline on which she can receive robocalls.

Seniors are easy to scare and easy to reach.  In the 29th, this means that we'll probably see more ads addressed to them, and they might even swing the election if someone shows them the right bogeyman.


I think this is a little overly critical of older voters. I'm not sure they scare that much more easily than younger voters.

I hate to link to Newsmax but this is what came up in my google search and it's right on the bullseye.

It's about how the Iraq war was the main concern for elderly voters in 2006. My grandparents are all borderline pacifist even though they lean right on many if not most other issues.

On the other hand, immigrant-bashing and gay-bashing play better among elderly voters.

Saying that "the war" is the #1 issue, as that article does, is pretty darn generic. It doesn't say whether all seniors have the same concerns over the war -- are they concerned that we're not fighting it correctly? do they want us to get out?

The conventional wisdom, and I don't have any polling to back it up, is that seniors will react negatively to any threat against their entitlements. That's why we see so many commercials threatening those entitlements. Like a lot of conventional political wisdom, it could be anecdotal rather than scientific.

I also know a number of older people who care more about the future for their grandchildren than they do about their benefits.

The seniors I know (and I might be one - how old do you have to be to qualify?) don't scare too easily. My dad and uncles all fought in war zones in WW2 and Korea and they realize that there are wars that need to be fought. Each individual senior will reach his or her own conclusion on the Iraq War.

I do think that seniors feel that they have worked hard all their life, carried the economy for years, and deserve whatever benefits come their way.

I think the AARP starts taking people at 50. So I'm guessing you're a Senior Citizen now.

I guess I am a senior! Where do I get all these benefits you are talking about?

The main benefit is AARP membership, from what my older friends tell me. I think you can get in cheaper at the movies -- stuff like that.

The real gravy train starts at 62.5 (I think) when you can pull Social Security, or 65 when you're Medicare eligible.

My dad and uncles all fought in war zones in WW2 and Korea and they realize that there are wars that need to be fought. Each individual senior will reach his or her own conclusion on the Iraq War.

My grandfathers and granduncles did too, so don't go there.

People who have actually fought in wars understand that there are real costs. It's not just "something people see on their tv screens" as The Decider likes to say. I'm fairly certain I've seen data suggesting that people over 65 are the least likely to think the Iraq debacle was worth it.

Anyone who still thinks the Iraq war "needed to be fought" needs to get back on their meds. There were no weapons of mass destruction -- how anyone possibly argue, at this point, that it needed to be fought? One could argue (wrongly) that it was a good decision but that it was necessary.

Here's some data on age and support for the war

The elderly were the least likely to support the war in 2002, before it started. To me, that is emblematic of being wary of war in general, since most voters didn't know how badly it would turn out at that time. I do think this has something to do with the fact that elderly voters are more likely to have actually fought in wars. And I've come to see the wisdom of grandparents' reflexive opposition to wars in general, something I didn't really understand at the time (as I'm ashamed to admit).

Exile, older and wiser, or perhaps older and more female, since men die earlier. Either way, interesting data.

I'm still not convinced that it's bad politics to target the elderly with scare ads. The elderly might still be more easily influenced on the margins that other blocs, or more easily reached.

Exile - how could any man (or woman for that matter) see a German or Japanese concentration camp and not realize that some wars need to be fought?

Exile - how could any man (or woman for that matter) see a German or Japanese concentration camp and not realize that some wars need to be fought?

I agree completely!

What I meant to say was that Iraq does not fall in that column. That's obvious now. I'll admit it was less obvious at the time.

In fact, I wouldn't set the bar as high as the atrocities perpetrated by the Axis powers to say that a war needed to be fought, but I would set the bar a lot higher than Iraq.

I'm still not convinced that it's bad politics to target the elderly with scare ads.

That's true of other groups as well, though.

Right, but the elderly are more prevalent in the 29th than in other districts.

Previous generations, were taught that the US doesn't start a war unless it is attacked. After the end of the Cold War that idea changed, partly, I think, because we had so much military "investment" that it would be a shame not to use it to save the world from all kinds of things that we thought were bad.

There is something about human nature that causes us to double down rather than stand or walk away. It's not just hubris or exaggerated humanitarianism. Once a person has invested in something it's really hard to quit. Look at the stock market bubbles or gamblers on a winning streak, or people holding onto houses that are worth 30% less than what they are paying for them.

Or towns like mine, that invested a hundred thousand and a lot of time and effort into studies and engineering for a water project that was estimated to cost a million. When the cost suddenly tripled, they still wanted to go ahead with it. The voters had to shut the project down with a referendum. Then they replaced the Supervisor and all the incumbent board members in the next election.

The US wouldn't have invaded Europe because of the concentration/death camps; that's certain -- not that we wouldn't have tried to alleviate the suffering, as we did in China and England before the war. We had to be attacked before we would commit to all out war. Old people accept this rule from experience and from what they were taught in the depression and the World Wars. The soon-to-be-old Boomers are pretty solid with the idea, I think, except for those who are invested in the money and power that demagoguery and waste can produce.

The US entered the following wars without any direct attack on our soil, or without any attack on our property elsewhere that could directly be traced to a foreign government:
Spanish American War - Republican President
World War 1 - Democrat President
Korea - Democrat President
Bay of Pigs - Democrat President
Vietnam - Democrat President
First Gulf War - Republican President
Second Gulf War - Republican President

There was never any real proof that the explosion on the USS Maine was caused by a foreign government. This lead to the Spanish American War

Even in WW Two, FDR was just looking for a good excuse to get involved and would have eventually if Pearl Harbor had never happened. He had already started sending Britain all the supplies he could.

There is no real history that would lead one to believe that we don't attack someone else unless we are attacked.

I'm not saying that there weren't good reasons to fight these wars, but we certainly weren't directly attacked by a foriegn government first.

vdomeras: The double-down instinct is strong and one of the irrational human tendencies that gets us into trouble.

Elmer: The Spanish-American War is an interesting one, because our capture of the Philippines led to the Philippines-American war, which had an extended period of insurgent warfare. Though it wasn't preceded by a terrorist attack, the Maine incident and the unintended consequence of having to fight a long, drawn-out battle in another far away country after "a splendid little war" make me wonder if I shouldn't be studying turn-of-the-century American history a little more closely. There might be some parallels to the current time.

Elmer: I said,"Previous generations, were taught that the US doesn't start a war unless it is attacked." That's all I said.

I certainly agree that we enter wars for all kinds of reasons, but the government has generally concocted a pretense when necessary. Even Grenada was billed as a rescue of American medical students. Now the pretense only has to include some theoretical threat rather than actual attacks on Americans or their property. I'm also not arguing that any party is more responsible for humanitarian or preventive wars. Clinton had Kosovo and Sudan, which were criticized by Republicans. He, like others, is still wringing his hands over Rwanda.

I'm no expert in American history. There may be exceptions, but I think that the general rule applied until the Cold War ended.