If there has been one bloc of voters the GOP could count on for support it is senior Americans. Double this if it is white seniors. Consider in 2008 John McCain carried them by eight points. Seniors were the only group he carried. In 2012 Mitt Romney won them by over ten points. In 2010 the GOP won them by over twenty points. Yet now, because of the work of a Democratic Party affiliated pollster, some analysts and the media are beginning to question whether seniors are going to stick with the GOP.
Let’s start with the pollster who has raised the question. Democracy Corps, run by James Carville and Stanley Greenburg, has embarked on a polling quest to find out what seniors, the young and single women care about. The firm recently completed polling among single women and unsurprisingly finds an overwhelmingly majority back Democrats. But it is their latest work that has raised eyebrows. The most notable item of their senior survey is that only 28% of seniors view the GOP favorably compared to 65% that do not. Compare this to Democrats currently having a 40% favorable rating among seniors. According to Democracy Corps, the GOP has dropped 12% in favorable ratings since 2011.
Even so, 46% of seniors plan to vote Republican compared to only 41% who plan to vote Democrat. The GOP won the group by twenty-one points in 2010. There are several reasons why seniors could have soured on the GOP since then. Perhaps they are tired of the sluggish economy and blame the GOP, perhaps they are worried about GOP plans to reform entitlement and maybe they just plain do not like party leadership. But even if this is true, and I stress if, we must be very cautious in arguing the GOP should go into panic mode, let alone even pay attention to one survey result. I posit several reasons why below.
1. This is only one survey: Democracy Corp’s survey is the only survey that has shown seniors becoming a competitive group. Indeed, Gallup has found seniors are most likely to disapprove of the Democratic Party. Admittedly, most surveys have shown a close Congressional generic ballot test and in the several Senate races that have been surveyed, seniors are competitive. But in this year’s two gubernatorial elections, the Republican candidates are dominating. Chris Christie is cruising in New Jersey but it is notable that Ken Cuccinelli, far from a star candidate, is winning seniors in Virginia. Until more surveys come out showing Democracy Corps results we should expect seniors to vote Republican in 2014.
2. The 2014 Senate map is filled with GOP leaning states: A total of thirty-six Senate seats are up for election this cycle. More importantly however, only two of those seats controlled by the GOP look competitive and they are both in states where Romney won easily. Compare that to Democrats defending seven seats in states Romney won. What this basically means is that the demographics and fundamentals of those races already favor the GOP to some degree. Consider that in two of the oldest states in the country, West Virginia and South Dakota, Republicans have strong candidates and Democrats do not have anybody. In other states, such as Montana, Alaska and Arkansas, the electorates skew older and more Republican. Now, these competitive states by themselves do not mean the GOP will win the senior vote overwhelmingly. But it does mean the Republicans are courting already conservative seniors in several Senate seats. A much easier task than courting them in say, Massachusetts.
3: Presidential approval has an impact on midterm voting patterns: Of the three modern Presidents that saw their party gain seats in a midterm, two of them, Clinton and Bush, had approval ratings much higher than 50%. However, in 1994 and 2006 when both President’s were unpopular their parties were decimated. Right now, Obama is far from a 60% or even 50% approval rating. This spells trouble for the party, especially when you consider the group that most disapproves of the President is seniors. This is going to color how they vote in the midterms. Republicans have already telegraphed their strategy for the midterms, tie every Democrat in a tough race to Obama and his scandals. Seniors are as sure to respond to this message as any other group of voters.
4: Seniors have been trending Republican: Since 2000 seniors have been trending Republican. In 2000 George Bush won seniors by six points, in 2004 he won them by eight points. John McCain, in one of the worst political environments a Republican could run in also won them by eight points. Mitt Romney built on the prior Republican advantage. In midterms seniors have historically been less Republican than presidential years (minus 2010). Yet in 2006 they gave Democrats a slim two point edge but by 2010 they had turned to the GOP by 21 points. For Mitt Romney, seniors were his saving grace. In short, Democrats are increasingly struggling to court these voters while Republicans seem to be having an easier time winning over the retiring baby boomer generation. Harry Enten has an interesting theory regarding this.
5: The modern Democratic coalition’s agenda is anathema to seniors beliefs: Younger, more modern Democrats such as Barack Obama and Kirsten Gillibrand seem to recognize where their party is heading and who it appeals to: minorities, the young and single women. Left out of this group are older, blue-collar workers and seniors. Traditionally these voters backed moderate to conservative Democrats for office. Today, fewer and fewer of these Democrats exist today. As a result, the GOP has become a home to moderate/conservative seniors who have essentially been forced out of the Democratic Party. As we have seen in 2006 this does not mean that seniors are never going to vote Democrat again. But that was a toxic environment for Republicans and yet when the same environment remained in 2008 the GOP won them by eight points (a ten point turnaround from 2006). With Obama at the head of the Democratic Party, seniors have little to attract them to Democrats. Even if the GOP is far from an appealing alternative.
Democracy Corps could be right. And if they are it certainly means Republicans will not win the Senate and they may lose seats in the House. That said, I just do not see it. Fundamentally, the Democratic agenda has been derailed by scandals, the President’s approval is dropping among key party blocs and the only option the party has left is to pick another fight with the GOP. For seniors to turn increasingly to the Democratic Party would mean they are largely ignoring these realities.
Furthermore, partisan identification among a voting bloc does not shift by double digits in the course of nine months. Pew, Gallup, Rasmussen and other pollsters have seen partisan identification shift a few points between elections, depending on the group, but not by a double-digit margin. More time is needed to ascertain if Democracy Corps is right but for now I feel comfortable in saying they are not.