Turnout by Senior Citizens Could Tilt Elections

Retirees may be one-third of voters in many places, boosting Social Security as a key issue.

More than ever, the Americans heading to the polls will be senior citizens, and one of their top issues - Social Security - has shot to the top of the election-season agenda.

In a new survey, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake projects that youth turnout on Nov. 3 will be at record lows, and in many places, the electorate will be 30 to 40 percent senior citizens.

"A month ago, [seniors'] top issue was moral values," she said at a recent Monitor breakfast. "Today, their top issue is Social Security."

Historically, social-welfare issues have played to the advantage of Democrats, who established New Deal safety-net programs. In the last election, the Democrats spent a lot of money claiming the Republicans wanted to slash Medicare and Social Security.

But Republicans are fighting back. "Watch for some interesting commercials in the next week about President Clinton again breaking a promise to the American public on saving 100 percent of the [budget] surplus for Social Security, and now spending one-third of it for spending programs," Republican pollster Ed Goeas said at the breakfast meeting.

According to current projections, by 2029 the Social Security system will not be able to meet all its obligations to retirees. Momentum has been building toward some form of privatization of the system, to allow citizens greater control over how their federal retirement money is invested, with an eye toward possibly greater returns.

Practically speaking, today's retirees and near-retirees don't have to worry about their own Social Security benefits. So why is Social Security at the top of their list of campaign issues?

"They know it's an intergenerational issue that's important to their children," says Nancy Thompson, spokeswoman for the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Democrats are hurt by the decline of the youth vote, now the most Democratic bloc. According to Mr. Goeas, the Republican pollster, 18- to 34-year-olds now account for about 12 percent of the electorate in presidential election years, and only 5 to 5-1/2 percent in midterm races like this year's.

Older voters, says Ms. Lake, have been "back and forth so much" in this election that it's tough to figure out how they'll vote. For now, she says, Democrats are doing slightly better among seniors, particularly women. In key swing districts, seniors are divided in terms of party identification.

In most races, the Social Security issue has been mainly a battle over sound bites, with candidates claiming they're really the ones who want to save the system. Groups working to develop a national dialogue on the issue are worried that partisan bickering in the campaigns will only hinder a solution.

"Social Security reform will require bipartisan cooperation, and that's not what campaigns are about," says Bill Bixby, policy director of the Concord Coalition, which advocates fiscal prudence.

Of course, any candidates who want to engage in serious dialogue about the issue can present voters with a real educational opportunity, says Mr. Bixby.

That may be happening in Wisconsin, in a Senate race between incumbent Russell Feingold (D) and his challenger, Rep. Mark Neumann (R). Both have made Social Security a signature issue, and both claim to be more serious about reforming the system.

Mr. Neumann introduced a bill called the Social Security Preservation Act, which he says would extend the life of the Social Security Trust Fund by changing the type of Treasury bond held by the fund. Mr. Feingold's campaign calls Neumann's plan a "shell game" that doesn't present any real solution.

But Feingold's position may be drowned out by the Republican Party's scorched-earth strategy: The GOP is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for ads on Neumann's behalf, while Feingold has declined "soft money" from the Democratic Party.

Feingold, a first-term senator, has long positioned himself as a champion of seniors and long-term care. As a state senator, he chaired the committee on aging. "But that was six years ago," says John Rother, chief Washington lobbyist for AARP. "I don't know if anyone remembers."

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