With less than six weeks to go until the midterm elections, control of the Senate is up for grabs. But whatever the outcome, Republicans will end up with significant gains in both houses of Congress. That’s because the GOP has a demographic advantage in midterm elections that mirrors the one Democrats enjoy from the rising wave of young, female, and Hispanic voters who reliably turn out in presidential elections. The Republicans’ advantage: old people.
Unlike Hispanic voters, who are growing as a share of the electorate, the proportion of older voters in midterm elections has long remained stable at about 25 percent. What’s changed is their political views. The generation of voters that came of age during the Franklin D. Roosevelt years — reliable Democrats — is being replaced by a new generation with political views that were formed during the Ronald Reagan years. These seniors have different ideas and expectations about the role of government in American life, and, unsurprisingly, are much more inclined to vote Republican. Call it the new politics of the old.
The rise of the Reagan seniors hurts Democrats in two ways. First, unlike the Roosevelt seniors, they weren’t shaped by the Great Depression and didn’t benefit from government programs to nearly the same extent. This has been true throughout their lives, including in retirement. “Reagan seniors don’t rely on Social Security and Medicare for as much of their retirement [as Roosevelt seniors],” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, “and along with being less reliant on government programs, they’re more likely to resist paying for them.” Reagan seniors are also wealthier than their predecessors and therefore more sensitive to tax rates, which further inclines them toward Republicans.
I haven’t found reliable exit poll data to track this shift across midterm elections, when its effect is most pronounced. But the pattern is evident in presidential years. In 1988, Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush effectively split the senior vote. In 2012, Mitt Romney won it by 12 points.
The other reason the senior vote will hurt Democrats is that seniors are the most reliable voters. The millennials, single women, and minorities whom Democrats rely on so heavily have much higher rates of mobility and displacement than older voters, who are more deeply rooted in their community and thus more likely to participate in its civic life. They tend to vote in every election, whereas the other groups don’t turn out in nearly the same number in off-year elections. This fall is shaping up to be no different. On Monday, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll found that 62 percent of people age 65 or older described themselves as “highly interested” in the November elections, meaning they’re more likely to vote. By contrast, only 20 percent of those under age 35 described themselves this way.
There remains a contingent of hardy old people whose views were shaped by Roosevelt and who continue to be faithful Democrats. “The older you are as a senior, the better we do with you,” says Lake, the Democratic pollster. “We do better with voters over 75 than we do with voters between 55 and 75.”
But these dwindling Roosevelt seniors have become more difficult for Democrats to reach because they tend to be put off many of the social issues (same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization) that unite the rest of the Democratic coalition. According to Lake, these seniors still respond to the old call to protect Social Security and Medicare. But that message is being drowned out this fall as many Democratic candidates focus on protecting access to contraception and abortion from Republican assault — a strategy meant to induce more women to vote, thereby helping Democrats to overcome the senior advantage Republicans have in midterm elections.
Whether or not this strategy pays off for Democrats probably won’t be clear until election night, and maybe even later. But they shouldn’t expect much help from the guy in the White House. Seniors’ shift away from the Democratic Party has been especially evident in Obama’s own career. According to Lake, he has never won the senior vote in the primary or general election as a candidate for president.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.