Senior voters could hold the key to Democratic success in the 2018 midterm elections.
The party has experienced an exodus of older Americans over the past few midterms. The past three midterm cycles — 2006, 2010 and 2014 — saw the party’s share of age 65-and-over voters fall by 17 percentage points.
But while President Trump won over 52 percent of seniors in November, Democrats are hoping that Trump and congressional Republicans are providing the party with openings around issues such as healthcare and his budget proposal that can be used to win older voters back.
“One of the key voting blocs Democrats will need to win the House and hold the line in the Senate is seniors,” Doug Thornell, a veteran Democratic strategist, told The Hill.
“Republicans are doing everything they can to help us with that effort.”
Democrats are pointing to ammunition from the early months of the Trump presidency, including the botched GOP healthcare plan and the president’s budget proposal.
Amid protests from the more moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party, GOP leadership and the White House pulled their bill to repeal and replace -ObamaCare off the floor last week. Republicans signaled this week that healthcare reform is not dead, but it’s unclear what changes could be made to placate both sides and find enough support to pass a plan.
The final version before the bill was scrapped would have allowed insurers to charge older customers about five times more than younger customers, compared with about three times more under -ObamaCare.
Combined with replacing insurance subsidies with tax credits and rolling back the Medicaid expansion, those changes could have led to staggering premium increases and lower rates of coverage for seniors. The Congressional Budget Office’s nonpartisan analysis of the bill estimated that by 2026, a 64-year-old could expect their premiums to be 20 percent to 25 percent higher under the GOP plan.
The bill’s effects on older insurance customers were a central part of Democratic messaging after Republicans introduced the bill. And those changes were reasons why the AARP, which claims 38 million members, came out in force against the GOP plan.
“As more and more people hear about what Republicans are trying to do with healthcare, the more disturbed and bothered people have become, particularly seniors,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison told The Hill.
“A lot of seniors take their lead from the AARP, and that creates a great opportunity for Democrats in 2018.”
Democrats have also cried foul over Trump’s initial budget proposal, which would eliminate Community Development grants issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. That federal money goes to states to fund a variety of programs, and some states use it to help pay for Meals on Wheels, which brings food to seniors and the disabled.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a prominent Trump-administration budget hawk, inadvertently provided Democrats with valuable material for attacks as he defended the cuts at a press briefing.
While “Meals on Wheels sounds great,” Mulvaney said, it’s “compassionate to say, ‘We’re not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore ... unless we can guarantee to you that money is being used in a proper function.”
Blasting Mulvaney’s comments as “callous,” Harrison predicted that Democrats will replay Mulvaney’s remark repeatedly in campaign ads throughout the cycle, adding that South Carolina Democrats are already planning to use the former congressman’s comments.
Studies have long showed that seniors are the most reliable voters, particularly during low-turnout elections like midterms. Bringing seniors back to the party could prove invaluable as Democrats look to rebuild their ranks in the House and Senate.
But seniors continue to drift rightward, bringing up serious questions as to whether a substantive flip is even possible.
Seniors were once a swing constituency that frequently leaned toward Democrats.
Data from Gallup shows that the party had a 14-point party affiliation advantage among seniors age 65 and older in 1992.
While that advantage dipped as low as 4 percentage points by 2003, it shot back up to 13 percentage points by 2006, the year that Democrats won back House control.
Midterm exit polling before 2006, which tracked seniors 60 years old and older, showed Republicans winning with seniors in each of the 1994, 1998 and 2002 midterm elections.
In 2006, Democrats tied Republicans with those 65 and older while narrowly winning those above 59 years old. Major themes in that election helped Democrats, including a backlash against a Republican proposal to privatize parts of Social Security, scandals that led to the resignation of four Republican lawmakers and a dragging Iraq War that brought down President George W. Bush’s favorability ratings.
But instead of forging lasting progress, 2006 marked the beginning of a sharp slide in Democrats’ appeal with seniors. In 2010, Republicans held a 21-point lead with the 65-and-older crowd, followed by a 16-point lead in 2014. And seniors’ registration advantage turned for Republicans by 2009.
Republican strategists blamed the exodus in part on shifts in Democratic priorities towards wooing younger voters and away from traditional values. They also cite voters’ perceptions that Republicans are better on economic issues.
“With the Democratic Party’s focus on open borders, what could be called excessive entitlements and identity politics, today’s Democratic Party is simply not speaking the same language,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
O’Connell added that Trump’s promise not to touch Social Security or Medicare, two programs dear to seniors, will help keep older Americans from abandoning Republicans.
It’s also a demographics game. Seniors are much more likely to be white, a group that trends Republican, compared with the younger voter blocs Democrats rely on.
To fix their problems with older voters, then, Democrats will also have to do better with white voters.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political scientist with the University of Virginia, told The Hill that the path to improved standing among senior voters goes through shoring up support among white voters. But he added that midterm elections typically hinge on larger themes, even with more specific constituencies.
“All of the messaging and logistics in the world, as the 2016 election showed, can’t overcome the mood of the electorate,” he said.
“If President Trump is more unpopular, with an approval rating in the high 30s, that will be good territory for Democrats, because when you think about who will show up, a lot of Republicans will be ambivalent while Democrats will be incensed and more likely to be engaged.”
That leaves Democrats hoping that the entire political climate in 2018 — from messaging attacking Trump on issues like healthcare and the budget to the potential for continued headlines about an investigation into Russian election interference — could create another boom for the party.
“This moment reminds me of GOP attempts to privatize social security in ’05 after a big electoral victory. They overreached, they failed and they never recovered,” Thornell, the Democratic strategist, said.
“A big part of that win in ’06 was that Democrats were able to do extremely well with voters over 65. I believe the stars are aligning again.”