Elder Americans could deliver surprise at polls Nov. 6
Rocking-chair politics could be the silent swing factor in this year's national elections. There are between 26 million and 28 million Americans over 65 today (some 12 percent of the total US population), and they are conscientious citizens who vote at consistently higher rates than the rest of the electorate: 70 percent of the elderly turn out to vote, compared with the national average of 52.6 percent. In the past, that vote has been routinely viewed by politicians as too splintered to worry about as a special-interest or bloc vote. The elderly vote, which cuts across class, race, economic, religious, and ethnic lines, has always been viewed as reflecting that diversity.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But politicians who view the elderly as a sedentary, uncohesive group may be surprised when seniors bolt from their rocking-chair image to the polls in this presidential election year. This year they are faced with serious questions about national policies to which people on fixed incomes are most vulnerable: the future of social security, medicare, food stamps, public housing, inflation, the deficit and interest rates.
The largest organization representing the elderly in the US indicates that one issue may polarize older voters in an unprecedented way. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) represents nearly 17 million senior voters , a high percentage of whom this year are concerned about one issue: the deficit. AARP president Vita Ostrander says a survey of its leadership and members across the country ''indicates the overriding concern of the membership is to reduce the deficit. Unless we cut down the deficit, the elderly as a group will have to be vulnerable and at risk of greater reductions of benefits.''
Among these benefits, she says, the reality is that two things are of utmost concern to the elderly - medicare costs and health care. ''It brings the membership together. ... This crosses party lines, issue levels, and income levels,'' she declares.
Mrs. Ostrander points out that AARP is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates or grade them on issues of concern to the elderly. But it does keep its membership informed.
''If either party does a public policy statement on the issues of the deficit and how to deal with health care, and if the elderly get a clear message, they will definitely vote more as a group,'' she says, adding a warning: ''So far, both parties are taking the elderly vote for granted, which I think is a mistake. If they want to pursue the elderly vote, it behooves both parties to clarify their positions regarding these issues.''
Ronald Reagan won 54 percent of the votes of those over 50 in the 1980 election, according to a Gallup Organization report. According to the Statistical Abstract of the US Census Bureau, 74.6 percent of those 65 and older registered that year and 65.1 percent voted. The figures for aged 45 to 64 were 75.8 and 69.3 percent.
Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, the congressional champion of the elderly in America, says of President Reagan: ''I think the elderly had a large part in his election. This time I think they're going to have a large part in his defeat.''
Given the diversity of the elderly, is there any possibility that this year they may vote as a bloc? ''I think they will,'' Representative Pepper says. ''I think more people will vote together to try to ensure the continuity and soundness of the social programs than they have before, because they've been put in jeopardy since the last election.''
Pepper remembers a Sept. 6, 1980, rally before thousands of senior citizens in Philadelphia in which he spoke for the Democrats and then Ronald Reagan spoke for the Republicans. Pepper sits in his Miami office with sun glinting through the palm trees outside and flourishes a clipping of a Philadelphia Inquirer story about that rally. ''Reagan Vows Support for Social Security,'' he quotes the headline, and notes that Reagan had promised there that ''every commitment made previously by the federal government would be faithfully kept.''