The Impact of Older Voters in the 2016 Election
Assessing the New Hampshire and Iowa results and looking ahead
New Hampshire voters have spoken. They selected the oldest candidates in the race from each party: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. What does that say about the impact that the older voter might have in the November election?
It is too soon to know, just as it is too soon to know who will ultimately win. However, it is never too early to start raising the issues that will motivate older Americans to vote.
This article is not meant to be a political crystal ball; it is far too cloudy to see November’s final outcome. But, after the first two opportunities for people to vote instead of just answer polls (Iowa and New Hampshire), we emerge with a sense that there is genuine anger combined with restlessness about the economic direction of the country and the growing reality that the recovery has not reached everyone.
Generational Subplots in the Campaign
There are many interesting subplots within this campaign so far, including some uniquely generational. For example, the oldest candidate, Sanders, is getting a lot of support from the youngest voters. The youngest candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, is being accused of being rigid and robotic. Surrogates for the major female candidate, Secretary Hillary Clinton, triggered generational strife about women and voting. And it’s only February!
Older voters, who will comprise about one quarter of the voting population in 2016, remain up for grabs and surprisingly have not been actively pursued by any candidate to date. For the record, in New Hampshire, Trump and Clinton carried the 65+ vote; Sanders won the 45 to 64 vote.
A Feb. 9 front-page New York Times article focusing on the large number of undecided voters in New Hampshire, featured interviews with five voters over 60. That small snapshot suggested that their indecision was based primarily on personalities — this Presidential race may have the highest number of distinct personalities in history.
Shifting From Personalities to Policies
Yet going forward, the race will shift from personalities to policies and positions. That day cannot come soon enough.
To win older voters, candidates will first have to recognize that these men and women are experienced in the polling booth; some have voted in 10 or more Presidential contests. As a result, this group will easily detect who is just pandering and who actually has plans to address issues that are important to them.
Candidates will also have to address the older voters’ strong intergenerational streak. We are now in a world of three- four- and even five-generation families. As a result, these voters will be motivated by issues related to economic security throughout the lifespan.
I believe that the candidates who offer plans about Social Security’s long-term future, recognizing that the program is both the largest older-adult and children’s program in the federal government, will fare better. Social Security’s future solvency is one solution preventing a new generation of poverty among people as they age. To date, thanks to the efforts of AARP’s Take A Stand initiative, all but two of the candidates (Republicans Donald Trump and Jim Gilmore) have put forth their positions on Social Security.
One great challenge facing older Americans is the growth in the numbers of people impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, the candidate who can propose a broad-based approach on Alzheimer’s disease stands to connect with a wider array of voters.
Moreover, 2016 may well be the year that the sleeping political force of family caregivers awakens and influences the election by their advocacy to have their issues addressed.
There are certainly many more issues which should be raised to connect with the older voter. For instance, we need a national nutrition policy that has healthy aging as its outcome. We should invest more in effective programs that help older adults remain independent — like the Older Americans Act — as well as work to address emerging threats to the health of older adults, like malnutrition.
The continued absence of a national long-term care policy or a long-term services and supports policy belongs at the center of this campaign, too, not on the sidelines where it has been to date. This is crucial not only for older adults, but for the 37 percent of those in need of long-term care under 65 as well.
Also not to be ignored: the need for our next President to commit to ramping up the federal response to elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, a public health crisis that now impacts one of every 10 persons over 60.
Political Imperatives to Be Reckoned With
To become president, a candidate must appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, of course, and issues such as national security, education and health care transcend generations. There are also other issues that are more unique to one generation than another.
Yet it is also the responsibility of advocates and activists for older Americans to raise the profile of issues of particular importance to them. Those issues that rise to becoming political imperatives cannot, and will not, be ignored.
In the months ahead, as the number of presidential candidates dwindles and the importance of issues grows, more of the topics that are unique to the older voter must get more attention.
One last thing: That New York Times article also cited a poll indicating that 82 percent of those undecided wanted to vote for the candidate who most aligned with them on the issues. Message to all candidates looking for the support of older voters: They care about issues, they know about issues and they vote.