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What Older Voters Want in the Midterm Elections

They're eager to send messages on Medicare, drug costs and Social Security


Part of the Political Issues and Policies Special Report

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Next Avenue and Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative on poverty and opportunity.)

Older voters could be a decisive bloc in the midterm elections, particularly since recent polls have showed registered voters 65+ leaning decisively towards Democratic congressional candidates, a sharp reversal from previous election cycles.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in September found 73 percent of “seniors” have the highest level of interest in the midterms, the most of any group. Several other polls also suggest older voters are eager to send Washington a message on three issues that are vital to them: Medicare, prescription drug costs and Social Security.

Most voters 50 and older seem unhappy with both parties in Congress. In a July AARP poll, 60 percent of likely registered voters over 50 said they disapprove of Republicans there and 57 percent disapprove of Democrats. These voters were roughly evenly split over President Trump: 50 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing and 45 percent approve.

New Documentary on Older Voters: ‘A Greater Society’

If you have any doubt about the power and zeal of older voters, I suggest you watch the fascinating new documentary, A Greater Society, online (see the trailer above). It’s an on-the-ground look at how residents of the 7,500-person Wynmoor Village retirement community in South Florida — political kingmakers dubbed “super-voters” — mobilized to get out the vote in the 2014 elections.

In that election, 60 percent of older Americans nationwide voted (just 23 percent of younger voters did). And in 2016, older voters had the highest turnout rate of all age groups: 71 percent. “It’s a voting demo that can make an impact on elections,” said Stacy Goldate, A Greater Society‘s co-director and co-producer.

“We went in not realizing how massive these Democratic and Republican clubs are” at Florida retirement communities, said Craig Colton, the film’s co-director and co-producer. “You get into their ballrooms and there are hundreds of people in these meetings. It was a complete eye opener. These were massive.”

Ronny Sydney, Wynmoor’s rabble-rousing Democratic leader in 2014 and a former member of the Massachusetts state legislature, told me:  “All the candidates come to us.”

Goldate and Sydney said Medicare and Social Security were huge concerns for Wynmoor residents then and now. The same is true for older voters across America. “People who understand how important those programs are, and people who are benefiting from them, are voters,” said Goldate.

The Views of Older Voters on Key Issues

Here’s a look at what older voters are saying about Medicare, prescription drug prices, health insurance and Social Security:

Medicare

A majority of older voters care deeply about strengthening Medicare and favor expanding the health program for Americans 65 and older:

  • 97 percent of boomers and 95 percent of Gen Xers said in a September survey from AARP and the Association of Young Americans that it’s important Medicare be there for them when they retire.
  • 73 percent of boomers and 72 percent of Gen Xers in that survey said they think the government should do something “immediately” to strengthen Medicare for the future. As Medicare expert Marilyn Moon recently said on a media call with the nonprofit Center for Medicare Advocacy: “Medicare is not out of control or in need of massive cuts, but it certainly has problems that need to be monitored and looked at over time.”
  • 69 percent of registered likely voters over 50 surveyed by AARP in July said they support giving some people between the ages of 50 and 64 the option to buy health insurance through Medicare; 21 percent opposed this.
  • 56 percent of registered likely voters over 50 told AARP that Medicare-for-All proposals should be part of the health care debate in Congress; 31 percent disagreed and 13 percent were unsure. Single payer, Medicare-for-All legislation from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) is getting increased support among Democrats in Congress. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, however, opposes it because he believes Medicare-for-All would restrict consumer choice and be too expensive for the government.

Prescription Drug Prices and Health Care

Older voters are greatly concerned about high prescription drug costs and possible changes to the Affordable Care Act that could lead some of them to be turned down for health insurance or to pay more for it.

In a September survey from West Health Institute/NORC at the University of Chicago, “thirty nine percent of voters 65-plus said prescription drugs should be the single top priority for candidates,” said Tim Lash, chief strategy officer of West Health Institute and president of West Health Policy Center. Other poll findings:

  • 92 percent of registered likely voters over 50 surveyed by AARP said the candidates’ positions on lowering prescription drug costs are important to them; similarly, 93 percent said so about lowering health care costs in general.
  • More than 90 percent of Americans age 65 and older favor letting Medicare directly negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and permitting more generics to compete with higher cost brand-name drugs, according to the West Health Institute/NORC at the University of Chicago survey. President Trump campaigned on this idea but his administration hasn’t followed through. It “has failed to apply any leverage against drug manufacturers, and the government is the single largest purchaser of drugs, through Medicare,” said Lash.
  • 66 percent of registered likely voters over 50 surveyed by AARP said letting Medicare negotiate lower drug prices will “help put Medicare on stable financial ground and save seniors money on the medications they need to stay healthy.”
  • 84 percent of registered likely voters over 50 surveyed by AARP said it is unfair to make people with pre-existing conditions pay more for their health insurance. Similarly, 83 percent opposed a proposal favored by some Republicans to let health insurers charge people over 50 up to five times more for health insurance than younger people; under current law, insurers can charge the older customers up to three times more.

Social Security

Protecting Social Security is essential to most older voters. Gen Xers are especially worried about the program’s future. One possible reason: President Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, recently said the administration would start considering “the larger entitlements” (Social Security and Medicare) “probably next year.” A few poll results regarding Social Security and older voters:

  • 92 percent of registered likely voters over 50 surveyed by AARP said the candidates’ positions on strengthening and reforming Social Security are important to them.
  • 95 percent of boomers and 89 percent of Gen Xers told AARP and the Association of Young Americans it’s important Social Security be there for them when they retire. While 70 percent of boomers said they’re confident Social Security will be there when they retire, only 41 percent of Gen Xers thought it would be there for them.
  • 70 percent of boomers and Gen Xers said they think the government should “immediately” do something to strengthen Social Security for the future.

This story is part of our partnership with Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America, a public media initiative on poverty and opportunity. Major funding is provided by The JPB Foundation. 

Richard Eisenberg
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch.@richeis315

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