The Republican Advantage Among Older Voters Won't Last

As life expectancy rises and the population ages, it gets more female and more opposed to entitlement reform. Those are both bad for a party of austerity.

Republicans are expected to score gains in 2014 because of their advantage among older voters, the voters most likely to turn out in midterm elections. That advantage has appeared surprisingly recently—and there is reason to think it won’t last long.

In 1988, voters older than 60 were the age group least likely to vote for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. The disparity was not huge: Bush would still have won even if the only votes counted had been cast by those older than 60. But it’s still suggestive that Bush ran strongest among the “Silent Generation” cohort just slightly too young to remember the Depression and World War II—and that he performed worst among those who personally remembered the New Deal, who had been of age to benefit from the G.I. Bill, and who now received Social Security and Medicare.

In the presidential election of 2000, Al Gore won 51 percent of the vote among those older than 65. Each younger cohort was incrementally less likely to vote for him. He did worst among those 18 to 24, who broke 47 percent for Gore, 47 percent for Bush and 5 percent for Ralph Nader.

The emergence of the older voters as a massively solid Republican bloc is a post-Obama phenomenon.

The Pew survey explained the trend in a 2011 report. The Silent Generation that voted for Bush in 1988 had retained its conservatism into its retirement years. No news there. The news was among the next cohort, the Baby Boomers: After the year 2000, the Woodstock generation veered abruptly to the right.

In their youth, the Boomers had expressed strongly liberal views about the role of government. In 1989, asked to choose between a bigger government that did more for people versus a smaller government that did less, they opted for bigger government by a margin of 52-40. By 2007, that preference had reversed itself, 52-35, and it has remained reversed through the Obama years. Even more striking was the collapse in trust in government among the Boomers: In 1997, 38 percent of them trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time; by 2009, only 16 percent did so, the same suspicious percentage as their formerly more conservative “silent” elders.

These trends explain the present. But they don’t predict the future.

As human life extends, it no longer makes sense to think of 65 as “old age.” We live in the age of the 65-year-old marathon runner, the 65-year-old rock star, and the 65-year-old new father. (At today’s pace of technological improvement, we may soon be surrounded by 65-year-old new mothers.)

Old age comes later now. But when it comes, it changes people in the same way it always did. Women begin radically to outnumber men. (In 2010, the older-than-80 population included 4 million males and 7.2 million females). Personal savings are exhausted. (Average net worth drops by 25 percent between age 65 and age 75.) Dependency rises. Attitudes to government change.

The older you get, the more you appreciate Social Security and Medicare …

... and the more you mistrust proposals for reform that might affect current recipients. In 2009, 43 percent of people in their twenties were open to reforms in entitlements that might touch those now receiving Social Security and Medicare; only 27 percent of people in the strongly conservative groups older than 65 would consider it.

As yet, few published surveys break out the differences between people in their sixties and eighties. Working politicians notice it, though. As one very successful political operative told me, “The No. 1 concern of every voter over 80 is, ‘Will my check arrive on time?'”

Cultural conservatism appeals strongly to the elderly. The bold economic individualism espoused by so many in the Republican Party since 2009? Not so much. A 501(c)4 group closely connected to GOP leaders and donors conducted a series of focus groups in spring 2012 among older independents in Michigan and Florida, two states Mitt Romney hoped to win. These voters strongly endorsed the entitlements status quo and opposed any changes that would affect them personally. They refused to believe that Medicare caused deficits. (They blamed “wars” instead.)

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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