The graying of America isn’t news, but the ramifications of a larger, older population on US elections may be underappreciated and undervalued in political campaign strategies, including for the 2020 presidential election.
Michael Hobbes, writing for Huffpost, says, “The US electorate is the oldest it’s ever been and will keep getting older for at least four more decades. Voters over retirement age will continue to dominate US politics until at least 2060.”
Not only are there more older people in America, Hobbes says there are more older registered voters who actually vote. Older voters take a different set of issues and perspectives to the ballot box than younger generations. And older voters are whiter and wealthier than younger cohorts.
“Older voters have unique characteristics and specific interests that transcend the Democratic-Republican divide,” Hobbes says. “From their economic circumstances to their demographic makeup, the concerns of older voters are only going to become more prominent as the baby boom generation enters retirement.”
That’s why, he adds, politicians don’t like to cross older voters on issues such as Medicare and Social Security. In less obvious ways, they also recognize older Americans are largely white, traditional in their social views, more comfortable with the status quo and wealthier than the generations that follow them.
These tensions are evident in the mix of Democratic presidential candidates that stretch from young, fresh faces touting universal health care, free college tuition and transformational climate change policies to older, more seasoned pols who talk about preserving Social Security and Medicare and pursuing progressive legislation at a more measured pace.
Young progressives point to the energy and new voters they are bringing to the Democratic Party. But in raw numbers, eligible voters who are 65 or older already outnumber Millennials and the gap is projected to grow larger over the next four presidential election years. That could heavily influence whether a fresh, younger face or a familiar, older face wins the Democratic nomination after the gauntlet of primary elections. Almost half of the declared or likely candidates for president in 2020 are 65 or older.
Older voters have historically been more Republican than Democratic. Even though that is changing overall and especially in highly blue states, older adults as an age group are more moderate in their viewpoints. They tend to see themselves as the people who will have to pay for whatever policies are enacted. That reticence is almost hard-wired into the political process, according to Hobbes, and affects both Democratic and Republican policymaking.
“To a great extent, older voters are still setting the agenda,” says Andrea Campbell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist. “They’re incredibly important to both parties’ coalitions. Politicians remain reluctant to run afoul of older voters.”
As AARP bluntly said in its April 30, 2018 bulletin, “If candidates want to win, they better pay attention to the issues that matter to Americans 50-plus.”