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Front Page » February 7, 2008 » Senior Focus » The senior citizen electorate
Published 2,365 days ago

The senior citizen electorate


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Pierina Crocco casts her vote at the Carbon County Courthouse during the primary election on Tuesday. While some political pundits see seniors as a large voting block that can be predicted to cast their ballots a certain way, the statistics show that seniors, as voters, are as diverse in their voting patterns as any other group.

It has often been said that the older one gets the more wisdom they have.

And if that counts in anything, it would seem that in voting for everything from a presidential candidate to someone running for the local city council, the older one is the better selections they should make.

Some political observers often talk about what they know when it comes to voting groups. They talked about generation X, the millennium generation, and the baby boomers.

They also talk about seniors as a group; as if they will vote one way or another on a particular candidate or issue.

But research shows that none of these groups, including seniors will always vote one way or another, even on issues that may seem near or dear to them.

In a study and a subsequent paper by Andrea Louise Campbell, an assistant professor of government at Harvard University, the author found that different circumstances affect how seniors will vote on an issue. One such issue is Social Security, which it would seem all seniors would be interested in.

The paper titled, "Self-interest, social security and the distinctive participation patterns of senior citizens," the author brings out the fact that as peoples dependency on social security goes down, the less interested they are in it.

"Decades of participation research show that political activity increases with income, but the participation of senior citizens specifically with regard to Social Security, poses an exception to this pattern," states an abstract from the paper. "Social Security-oriented participation decreases as income rises, in part because lower-income seniors are more dependent on the program."

But Social Security, certainly an important part of senior living for many, is not the only thing that is unpredictable when it comes to political activity.

And as the makeup of seniors changes over the next few years, filling up with baby boomers who always had their own way of doing things, will the trend become even less predictable?

For instance in the present election process, it would seem to many that classifying John McCain as part of an older audiences preference, while relegating someone like Barack Obama to the cutting edge for young people, would make perfect sense.

Grant Howell acted on Tuesday as a senior helping seniors, as he aided those who were using voting machines at the Carbon County Courthouse.

But also add to this that Americans are seemingly becoming more disengaged from the political process, even with a bit of a revival in the present election. However, at present, the senior generation is largely made up of people who are from the "greatest generation" or "war babies" that came along before the boomers were born.

While some may see seniors as a group as an elephant in the room that needs to be dealt with in each election, there are very few facts to back up that seniors vote as a block, even with groups like the AARP urging them on.

Seniors seem to be no more likely to vote on one or two issues than anyone else. In the 1984 presidential election , Ronald Reagan had proposed during his first term that Social Security had to be cut. Walter Mondale, the Democrat running against him repeatedly brought the issue up and tried to show that Reagan was doing a disservice to older people in the country. However when all was said and done, Mondale lost, with senior voters contributing greatly to his demise.

Over the years, seniors have been one of the most solid voting groups. In the 2000 presidential election, over two thirds of seniors voted, while in the general population the percentage was just a little over 50 percent. And senior election participation has increased over the last 30 years, by over five percent. Meanwhile the cynicism of many Americans has dropped other sections percentages, until this year where many new, young voters have registered to vote in elections.

The kinds of candidates seniors go for are as diverse as they are. Over the years they have gone for Reagan (both 1980 and 1984), George H. Bush (1988), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) and Al Gore (2000).

In the makeup of the American electorate, many groups often vote for only their own interests. But seniors tend to think about the future of their kids and their grandkids, and what they will face.

There are a lot of contrasting facts about seniors and how they vote and why they might pick one person over another for president, for congress or for a state office. But the fact is that despite the issues that face them, seniors are, as a general rule, not one or two issue voters, just like the rest of the population.

If there is a threat to seniors voting records and public involvement it may be the isolation that is becoming American society. In his book "Bowling Alone; The Collapse and Revival of the American Community," Robert D. Putnam points out how Americans have come to do social things so differently from what the "greatest generation" did. His book was named after the fact that while Americans on the whole still bowl as much as they always did, they now do it alone more rather than in joining leagues or groups. He says that the disengagement of Americans from fraternal organizations, church groups (not church attendance), and other groups and moving more toward their own little circle of people is affecting everything from crime to illness to political activity.

For four decades candidates in presidential election campaigns have given statements on issues designed to appeal to older Americans. But, exit-poll data has consistently shown that older people have distributed their votes among presidential candidates in basically the same proportions as the general electorate. In 2004 the percentage of older persons voting for George W. Bush was slightly more than the national average, suggesting that senior policy issues are not the main factors in affecting older voters.

So as the "sandwich generation" (those with older parents to take care of and with kids who are adults sometimes returning to live at home) ages, how this changes can only remain to be seen.


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