May 28, 2011 – 1:34 p.m.
Political Economy: Demography and Destiny
By John Cranford, CQ Weekly Columnist
In the same week that Democrat Kathy Hochul capitalized on voter concerns about the future of Medicare to win election to the House from an upstate New York district that has a decidedly Republican cant, the government told us just how important that health care program will be in coming elections. It’s plainly not going to be an issue only in Arizona and Florida.
Demographic details from the 2010 census released last week put a much finer point on the aging of the population — and how well that grayer population is distributed across the country. In 2010, almost a third of the U.S. population was 50 or older, up from little more than a quarter in 2000. This aging wasn’t confined to a few well-known retirement spots, however.
Although the population grew in every state but one over the past decade, 38 states posted an actual decline in the number of residents under 50. It might be surprising to learn that Arizona and Florida were among the 12 where the number of younger residents actually grew.
Even more telling is the fact that, in every state, the share of the population that is 50 and older increased — reflecting the fact that most baby boomers crossed that divide in the last decade.
This pattern of older Americans spread across the landscape will be increasingly significant both for policy considerations and for electoral politics. But other evidence suggests that the particular consequences of this demographic shift may not be altogether obvious.
Over-50 Americans who are still working tend to be in their peak earning years. But they are also less likely to have school-age children. The consequence is that they may be better prepared to pay the taxes that support local school systems and, at the same time, be less inclined to want to do so.
People over 50 are also staring more clearly at their prospects for retirement and are at an age when health issues begin to be more of a concern. Laws dictating what sorts of retirement options companies must provide their workers, as well as questions about the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, are — by definition — more important to this age group than to others. So, too, are policies that are seen as posing a threat to Americans living on fixed incomes and those who need a variety of state, local and federal government assistance to make their lives more comfortable.
Finally, older Americans tend to vote more regularly than younger ones.
This all adds up to a potent and active voting bloc on a wide variety of economic issues. But if the leaders of either political party assume that they can take this group for granted, or assume that the party’s ideological views mesh easily with the ideals of older Americans, they should think again.
No Clear Winner
To begin with, the 2008 presidential election results suggest that the hearts, minds and votes of this group may be up for grabs.
Exit polls show that voters ages 50-64 preferred
Political Economy: Demography and Destiny
More recent polling brings this seeming divide into sharper relief, and suggests that Republicans may have a bit of an advantage in winning the affections of older voters.
The Pew Research Center this month released its latest effort at painting a comprehensive ideological portrait of Americans that goes beyond the designations of Republicans and Democrats. In this study, voters 50 and older seem to align most closely with three groups that Pew calls Hard-Pressed Democrats, Disaffecteds and Staunch Conservatives.
More than three out of five of those who identify with the latter group — which is likely to vote resolutely Republican — are 50 or older. They tend to be almost unanimous in their belief that government is wasteful and inefficient, that regulations harm the economy and that government cannot afford to do much more to help the needy.
Roughly half of the Hard-Pressed Democrats and the Disaffecteds are at least 50, and there are some common perceptions between these two groups. They generally think corporations make unfair and unreasonable profits. They generally want the government to do more to help the needy, even if that means increasing the debt. They don’t believe they have the means to get by. And they say immigrants are a burden on the country.
While Democratic operatives can find ideological veins to mine in those two groups, the GOP also can find ways to tap into their apprehensions. It’s easy to underestimate differences among individual voters and to overstate the influence of particular demographic groups. But it’s also clear that older Americans will play an ever-more-important role in political decision-making, and they are apt to have special concerns to which politicians of all stripes will need to be attuned.