Swinging Seniors

On its face, the United Seniors Association (USA)
decision two weeks ago to launch a major advertising blitz in support of the
House Republicans' prescription-drug proposal was not unusual. The pharmaceutical
industry, which funds the USA, has a huge stake in how the prescription-drug
debate plays out in Congress. Since the 1994 elections, the drug industry's
campaign contributions have tilted Republican at about 72 percent. And even the
ad campaign's $3 million price tag made sense: Steep, but a worthwhile investment
to influence what could turn out to be a massive new government spending program.

What was odd was that the Republican plan in question doesn't
really exist yet -- because Republicans in the House are sharply divided over
precisely what kind of plan to offer voters this fall. On the one side are
Republican leaders, who circulated a draft plan in early May that would finance a
modest Medicare-based prescription-drug benefit by cutting back Medicare payments
to hospitals. On the other are several dozen rank-and-file Republicans who felt
the benefit was either too small ($350 billion to the Democrats' $500 billion),
too stingy (annual drug costs between $2,000 and $5,000 wouldn't be covered at
all), or too shortsighted (because it would rob Peter's HMO to pay for Paul's
arthritis pills).

By mid-May the dissidents were close to open revolution -- which is why the drug
industry, hoping to shore up support for the leadership's plan, had gotten
involved in the first place. Republican Charlie Norwood of Georgia told reporters
the bill had "serious problems." Iowa Representative Greg Ganske warned of
small-town hospitals "getting close to bankruptcy." Pennsylvania's John E.
Peterson predicted "devastating consequences" should the bill become law. But
it's not just the consequences for hospitals that worry Norwood, Peterson, and
Ganske. It's the consequences for themselves. Issues that seemed to have lost
potency in the months after September 11 -- not just prescription drugs, but also
Social Security and Medicare -- have taken on a new urgency. Dozens of GOP
incumbents are starting to feel vulnerable, as well they should: If 1992 was the
Year of the Woman, 2002 is shaping up to be the Year of the Geezer.

If presidential elections are a little like World War II -- two
vast armies squaring off from coast to coast -- midterm elections are more like
guerrilla wars. They are fought almost entirely by small numbers of highly
trained, highly motivated foot soldiers: union workers and African Americans for
the Democrats, religious conservatives and gun owners for the Republicans. Real
combat is limited to a handful of competitive congressional districts and states
with weak or retiring senators. And relatively few of those Americans eligible to
vote actually will. The signs are already there: According to Democratic pollster
Celinda Lake, women over age 60 have become the single most Democratic age group
in the country, creating a massive 22-point gender gap among senior women between
the two parties.

The result is that tiny groups of voters -- and even tinier swings
within those groups -- can move an election one way or another. The last time
around, in 1998, the Democrats surprised everybody, including themselves, by
gaining five House seats. They won those seats in part through small but
significant shifts in turnout among black voters -- a campaign masterminded by
Democratic campaign whiz Donna Brazile at the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee, and energized by the Republican drive to impeach Bill Clinton. In the
25 targeted congressional districts, African-American turnout jumped from 5
percent to 10 percent. (The labor vote also increased significantly, to 23
percent in 1998 from a 13 percent share of the electorate during the dismal 1994

Sheer demographics, then, explain in part why seniors will be so pivotal in
2002: By some estimates they will constitute nearly one-third of voters who go to
the polls in November -- up from about 22 percent in 2000. In some states, such as
Florida and Pennsylvania, seniors will make up a whopping 40 percent of 2002
voters. Iowa, West Virginia, and Nevada -- each of which, like Florida and
Pennsylvania, has between one and four open or competitive House seats -- are also
disproportionately senior-heavy. So are the many swing districts in rural areas,
which have been getting older and older as more and more young people leave for
the suburbs and cities.

But if older Americans are especially dominant in particular districts and
states, what makes them so attractive to campaign strategists is that they are
ubiquitous. Unlike African Americans (who are concentrated in major cities and in
the South) and union members (who are concentrated in the Northeast, the
industrial Midwest, and the Pacific coast), seniors can be found in every state
and every congressional district in America -- big cities and small cities, suburbs
and rural areas, North and South, East and West. Why is this important? Because
it helps solve a tactical problem that is especially pronounced in a close
midterm election: where to target campaign resources. Congressional campaign
strategists tend to ignore solidly partisan districts with safe incumbents,
preferring to focus on vulnerable candidates in middle-of-the-road swing
districts. But those same solidly partisan districts are a priority for Senate
campaign strategists, who need high turnout among party regulars to win close
statewide races. A national campaign that caters to senior citizens serves
congressional and statewide candidates alike.

It's also a safe investment because Geezers -- unlike, say, Whippersnappers -- are
especially reliable voters. During campaign season, older Americans truly earn
the appellation Senior Citizen: They show up at the polls more consistently than
nonseniors. They read more newspapers (and more political magazines, including
this one). They listen more closely to campaign ads and stump speeches. They pay
attention to the issues -- and they pay especially close attention to their
issues, which is to say the security of Social Security, the cost of prescription
drugs, and the generosity of Medicare benefits.

The growing senior vote is not a new phenomenon, of course,
although it is accelerating. (The projected increase for 2002 is about double the
usual uptick, since 1992, of 1 percent or 2 percent per election cycle.) What's
interesting is the partisan breakdown. The Democrats have taken a majority of the
senior vote in every presidential election since 1992, when Clinton won the
senior vote by a resounding 12 points; the Republicans, in turn, have won a
majority of the senior vote in both the 1994 and 1998 midterm elections. But as
the baby boomers approach retirement, the senior vote seems to be trending
Democratic. The GOP's strong showing in 1998 had a lot to do with seniors'
disgust with Clinton; in 2000's House races, they went Democratic by two points.

What has the Republicans worried is that it is precisely on senior
issues that the Democrats are best positioned to run this fall. The most obvious
reason is that the generic Democratic advantage on Social Security and
prescription drugs -- which tilted the senior vote to Al Gore by about four
points -- is magnified in a senior-heavy election. But there are other strategic
advantages. Unlike gun control, for instance, Social Security and prescription
drugs are issues on which Democrats in Washington are fairly united. The
Democrats' generous prescription-drug plan plays well in rural swing districts
where Republicans typically have the advantage, but which are also
disproportionately old (and getting older). And unlike, say, repealing the tax
cut, prescription-drug coverage is a fight the Democrats can win.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are particularly vulnerable on senior issues,
because it is precisely in this territory that they have the least cover from
President Bush. In fact, Bush's agenda on such issues is hurting his
congressional wing. The White House's prescription-drug plan, which House
Republicans are trying to ignore, proposed a miserly $190 billion in spending.
That's one reason why Bush's approval rating on health care -- about 44 percent -- is
among his worst. (Bush's advisers are loath to drive up spending on Medicare both
because it will increase government spending and because they don't want to give
Democrats more room to hammer away at Bush's lack of "fiscal responsibility." But
Karl Rove's candidate doesn't face the voters this November, as Republican
members of Congress have noted.) And although Social Security privatization polls
horribly among seniors, the Bush administration has been pressuring the House GOP
to move forward on one of the privatization plans issued last year by the
President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security.

For seniors, issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs are
concrete, "pocketbook" concerns that cut across class and regional lines and that
don't go away -- especially not in a recession. Whippersnappers may not mark the
difference between a $350 billion prescription-drug plan and a $500 billion one;
they tend to count the zeros and leave it at that. But Geezer supervoters on
fixed incomes pay close attention to the details: deductibles, coverage
"donuts," and premiums increases. (Remember the Social Security "notch"?) The
Republicans can fool a lot of voters by offering a Patients' Bill of Rights or a
prescription-drug benefit that looks and sounds about right. But it's harder to
fool seniors.

So it's among older Americans that the Democrats have their best shot at
articulating a coherent political agenda -- and, just as importantly, at
differentiating it from the Republican alternatives. Bread-and-butter issues
may, of course, lack a certain sexiness. When the Democrats outlined their fall
campaign themes in late April you could practically see the eyes rolling. The
"repackaged Democratic agenda," Alison Mitchell noted dryly in The New York
, is "not significantly different from what the party presented in
2000." But that's irrelevant. If the package hasn't changed, the electorate
certainly has. Several years ago, in 1998, a few thousand senior votes nationwide
were credited with keeping the House in Republican hands. In 2002, it may take
only a few thousand votes to swing it back.