Columns » John Brummett

Have older folks gone Republican?

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One thing we very recently knew about American politics was that senior voters favored Democrats.

That was because the Democratic Party gave birth to the elderly safety net — Social Security, Medicare — and thus was more trusted to be vigilant about preserving it.

Now maybe we can forget that.

Older folks are now Republican, or at least they were in November.

That's according to the first rollout of polling data conducted by a new and well-funded partnership of two University of Arkansas institutes that are intending to become the major depository of political information about the South.

They are the Diane Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. They dispatched a pollster to do a national survey of 3,406 respondents in November and to include in that an over-sampling of Southerners to try to glean special understanding of the South.

Nationwide, after weightings to bring representation of other areas up to the level of the South's raw numbers, the poll produced these findings: Respondents under 65 leaned to the Democrats, 43-33, but those over 65, who vote more regularly than the youngsters, leaned to the Republicans by 48-39. Senior white respondents in the South were lopsided — 63 percent Republican and 23 percent Democratic.

Dr. Todd Shields, political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said the November poll covered a lot of territory, but that he wanted to compile, analyze and release the findings on these apparent elderly shifts first. They were the most notable, indeed surprising, he said.

A later rollout will suggest that the tea party movement is perhaps more heavily a backlash against Barack Obama and immigration than a clear indication of a lasting Republican shift.

That will be pretty interesting, too. But it doesn't measure up to this indication that the Democrats have lost the AARP crowd.

Several factors are in play. One is that young people swarmed to the Republicans in the Reagan era and are now simply carrying that conversion into their retired years. Another is that Southern white people — the older ones, especially, and for whatever reason — tend to reject Obama.

Yet another is that economic uncertainty tends to harm or frighten the elderly disproportionately, either because of their fixed incomes or because losses in investment earnings can erode the value of their precious life savings.

But, in perhaps the most significant and volatile factor, seniors had been scared last year by Republican charges that the new Obama health care reform law would help pay for itself by making cuts in Medicare that would reduce availability and levels of health care for seniors.

These findings help explain why Republicans were determined to exempt today's seniors from the rather radical Medicare changes recently proposed, and rather abruptly abandoned, by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Republicans hammered that their semi-privatization of Medicare would apply only to persons now younger than 55.

There are indications that elderly voters don't much consider such distinctions whenever major and frightful changes are proposed in Medicare.

It may be that these findings from November, so pronounced at the time as reflected in the mid-term Republican blowout, may have been altered, or softened, a bit.

Still, a more general and telling trend remains: Democrats can no longer bank on the elderly, especially the white Southern version.

Democrats have lost a good number of seniors and some of the rest are now newly apt to go either way, apparently, depending on which party is perceived as posing the greatest threat to Medicare.

That is why "entitlement reform" or "cuts in Medicare" to reduce the federal deficit will always be daunting, nigh unto impossible, no matter who is doing the proposing.

We like government health care more than we know.

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