Politics of Aging

Elderly Voting Trends and the Current Election

There is an election in the United States which is fast-approaching

and which bucks the trend of recent history wherewith it can be said that

the two candidates are virtual mirror images of one another. Illinois

Senator Barrack Obama, at age forty-seven and coming from a mixed-

ethnicity, is a clear departure from the patrician and elderly white man

which has traditionally dominated the electoral field. And as he is

polling nearly ten percentage points ahead of his opponent, the

inconsistent and sometimes conservative seventy-two year old Arizona

senator John McCain, it appears more than likely barring an unforeseen

incident of cataclysmic relevance, Obama will be victorious on election

day. In order for him to succeed, Obama must overcome some significant

obstacles, not the least of which is the voting perspective and ambition of

America's elderly. As the nations most politically active and electorally

represented demographic, the elderly hold a key stake in the way America

votes, channeling their particular interest in such issues as healthcare,

social security and the economy into a mobilized block of absolutely

crucial voters. The dynamic impact of the elderly on an election is

certain not lost upon the two major party candidates, who have spent no

small amount of time courting the support and interest of the elderly. The

determinant impact which they will have on this election is indisputable.

But just exactly how the elderly will vote on this coming Tuesday is a

matter of great importance to either candidate, with McCain relying on

lingering vestiges of racism, pro-war sentiment and a degree of

conservative resonance in order to bring the elderly to his support camp.

Obama, by contrast, has based his campaign on the promise of a brighter

future for America, inviting the elderly to vote with a conscience instead

of with self-interest. This distinctly liberal courtship of support,

particularly as it contrasts the prurient appeal of a McCain-type figure to

the elderly, brings this account to a discussion on the roles played by the

elderly in the electoral scheme.

With this in mind, we consider an interesting theoretical sentiment.

Indeed, Winston Churchill once said, "If you were never a liberal at

twenty; you have no heart. If you are not a conservation at age fifty; you

have no brain". This is a sentiment with great importance to our

discussion about electoral and party demographics. Wattenberg, in his

essay "Should Election Day Be a Holiday" describes the leading non-voters

in two distinct groups. He has come to the conclusion, through statistical

analysis, that these two groups consist of the young and the ill educated

(no high school diploma). Conversely, Wattenberg sees the best voter turn

out in the elderly.

Wattenberg puts forth several reasons that these two aforementioned

groups year after year have dodged the voting booth. Beginning with the

youth, he finds that Generation X and consequently this current generation

of youths (the MTV Generation?) for the most part neither follows nor is

active in politics. One possible reason, which helped to precipitate the

elderly vote's uncontested certainty in support of President Bush, may be

that these younger generations of voters had led a significantly more

stable/peaceful life, at least prior to the events of September 11th.

Proceeding from the years of the Clinton Administration, where the United

States appeared to be on a positive social, economic and cultural

trajectory, the younger voters of a generation ago did not have a

meaningful or encompassing issue around which to coalesce. Instead, the

MTV Generation has watched campaign scandals, corporate cronyism and sex

deviance with a degree of assumed distance. The young are disenchanted

with the system at large, and instead of rallying to change it, many have

refused to even participate. In addition, even because this generation has

been raised on what Wattenberg calls "narrowcasting" rather than

"broadcasting", it is often avoid exposure to politics. Whereas in the

past the only television options were CBS, NBC, and ABC and people had to

watch political debates, today most people including the youth are given

access to a greater variety of media options. This makes it possible to

establish a closer connection to the political process where one desires,

but it also makes it that much easier to disconnect.

For the elderly, this is often a case which is eschewed by a sense of

personal investment in the decisions which are made at the highest levels.

Just as the younger voters have tended historically to distance themselves

from the political process, they have helped to empower the elderly voting

block. The interests of the elderly, therefore, play a greater role in the

electoral promises, policy platforms and campaign agenda that define an

election. And without question, evidence does point to a heightening

interest by senior citizens in this level of engagement. This evidence

actually connects elderly voting trends to more modern aspects of the

electoral process, with Wattenberg finding that "it is noteworthy that

senior citizens are actually voting at higher rates today than when

Medicare was first starting up. Political scientists used to write that the

frailties of old age led to a decline in turnout after age sixty; now such

a decline occurs only after eighty. The greater access of today's seniors

to medical care must surely be given some credit for this change."

(Wattenberg, 1) This, more than any one particular issue or aspect of the

political process, has tended to bring a heavy focus to the contributions

of the elderly in the biannual tradition. Indeed, regardless of platform

differences, major candidates today will spend a significant (if not

majority) proportion of campaign time appearing in retirement communities,

long term care facilities, veteran's associations and other venues where

such voters tend to congregate. There is little question that the tenacity

of elderly voters has attracted the attention of presidential candidates in

recent election cycles, with the proportion of their vote actually

constituting a potentially determinant stake.

This election is no different, as both Obama and McCain have focused

attentively on conveying their respective messages to senior citizens, who

do indeed find themselves at the center of a number of very important

issues. With the economy in shambles and the healthcare industry weighed

down by incongruous cost growth, the elderly are directly impacted by much

of what is occurring today. Certainly, "there's been a lot of talk about

young voters boosting the vote for Obama. But because of older voters'

higher turnout for elections, they could be a more decisive voting bloc in

the Nov. 4 election. And, overall, polling has shown them backing 72-year-

old McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war." (Hefler, 1) And that does capture

the reality of most recent election events, where the resonance of

important issues with young voters has not appeared to tilt the scales back

this way. As the electoral process stands today, those in their twilight

years will tend to have a greater direct impact on our collective future

than will those in their formative phases of political development. In the

current election, which for the Democratic challenger has been used as a

needed referendum on the failures of the current administration, the need

for change has resonated with the young. Amongst those in their 60s and

older in the retirement community assessed in the article, McCain is out-

polling his opponent nearly 2:1. (Hefler, 1) Even with Obama's currently

comfortable lead going into the final days of the campaign, the threat that

this voting block could play a determinant role with respect to the

decisions made by undecided voters is a serious one. The elderly vote is,

in many regards, still very much in play.

For younger Americans and members of the labor class, the pressures

of daily subsistence are significant enough in a recessive economy to be

virtually overwhelming. Indeed, in many ways, the reasons the uneducated

and poor are underrepresented in the vote are directly related to the

institutionalized demands of day to day life. Karl Marx coined the phrase

"subsistence wages". to refer to the fact that uneducated workers are

generally only paid wages scaled to sustain themselves without extra money

or luxury. And indeed, during a time of inflation and stagnant income such

as the current time, younger and more labor oriented individuals have come

face to face with the Marxist presumption denoting subsistence wages to be

a form of social control. In many labor contexts, wages are low enough and

living expenses high enough that a laborer will have to work long enough

and hard enough each day that he will lack the political will, energy or

ability to improve policy impacting his situation. For the retiree, the

implications of those conditions negatively impacting his living situation

are me dominant to the perspective, inciting a direct responsiveness that

in many ways may be derived from the far greater proportion of disposable


And of course, there are deeply rooted cultural implications to the

cultural divide which play into an election such…