Now, it’s all about the seniors. In a presidential race that is marching daily – but not irreversibly – toward the election of Democrat Barack Obama, Republican John McCain unveiled proposals Tuesday aimed foremost at benefiting older Americans hit hard by the gyrations of the stock market.
Seniors represent a critical voting bloc in states that Senator McCain has to hold onto to win the election – including Florida, Ohio, and Indiana – and that have been moving toward Senator Obama. Senior citizens are also crucial in blue states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Obama now has double-digit leads and which McCain has worked hard to sway. He announced what he calls his Pension and Family Security Plan at an event in Blue Bell, Pa.
The plan includes a reduction of the tax rate on withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s to 10 percent. McCain also repeated his proposal to suspend tax rules that require seniors to begin selling off equities when they reach age 70 1/2. Obama announced his own economic plan on Monday, including tax credits for job creation and a moratorium on home foreclosures. But it is McCain who needs a dramatic shift in momentum, and his emphasis on seniors is telling: These are voters that McCain should be winning handily, and any sense that they may be drifting away from him is a warning sign.
“The bulk of the media’s attention has been on younger voters, not older; but older are the high turnout voters,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Some feel like their concerns have not been addressed by the candidates.”
In Florida, Obama is up by an average of five points – by no means an insurmountable lead, but if McCain loses Florida, he loses the election. Pollster Brad Coker says white seniors are McCain’s strongest group in Florida, aside from registered Republicans, as of Oct. 6. And he needs them to counteract the other demographics that are leaning toward Obama. Mr. Coker, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based president of Mason-Dixon Polling, agrees that McCain needs a clear, simple plan to offer voters that he can lay out concisely.
“He needs something comprehensive and coherent that he can explain in 15 or 20 seconds,” says Coker.
In Pennsylvania, another key state with a large population of seniors, Obama now enjoys a solid double-digit lead. And the fact that McCain is doubling down on winning the support of seniors is a sign that he’s waging a battle in his own backyard.
“There’s no doubt he needs this plan, and he needs to start appealing to voters that, if we elect him, he’ll do more than just say, ‘Trust me,’” says Mr. Madonna.
The theme of the last presidential debate, to be held Wednesday night at Hofstra University on Long Island, is the economy – an opportunity for both candidates to emphasize their plans. In the last debate, McCain slipped in a major new proposal without much fanfare: a $300 billion plan for the government to buy troubled mortgages from homeowners. He repeated that plan in his speech on Tuesday, and laid out some other proposals, including a plan to reduce capital gains taxes for 2009 and 2010 and a plan to suspend the tax on unemployment insurance benefits in 2008 and 2009.
The Republicans have not completely given up on trying to take down Obama by emphasizing his past associations with people like William Ayers – a onetime radical who McCain running mate Sarah Palin calls a “domestic terrorist” – and Tony Rezko, a now-convicted felon with whom Obama once made a land deal in connection with the purchase of his Chicago home. The Republican National Committee, in an effort to help the underfunded McCain campaign, has just invested $5 million in two ads, one of which highlights Obama’s connections with Mr. Ayers and Mr. Rezko (and also William Daley, who it calls part of the “Chicago Machine”).
Last week, the agitation of crowds at McCain and Palin rallies had reached the point where voices were heard calling for violence against Obama. By Friday, McCain opted for the high road, telling a crowd in Lakeville, Minn., that Obama is “a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” The statement was met with boos.
Wednesday’s debate represents McCain’s last chance to reach a wide swath of the American electorate. If the first two debates are any guide, chances are slim that McCain can change the trajectory of the race in his last faceoff against Obama. Perhaps the best he can do is match his rival in projecting a sense of calm, in light of the turmoil in the American economy. Polls have shown voters believe Obama won the first two debates.