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Diplomacy in Action

The Senior Vote in the 2012 Election

Curtis Gans, Director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate
Washington, DC
May 23, 2012

Date: 05/23/2012 Location: Washington, DC Description: Curtis Gans, Director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, briefs at the Washington Foreign Press Center on ''The Senior Vote in the 2012 Presidential Election.'' - State Dept Image

2:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We’d also like to welcome our colleagues at the New York Foreign Press Center. Our guest today is Mr. Curtis Gans. He’s the president of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, and he’s here to talk about the senior vote in the 2012 presidential election.

Before he begins, I’d like to make a statement that Mr. Gans is not a U.S. Government official, so he does – he’s here representing his own views, and so anything – all of his statements are not necessarily a reflection of U.S. policy. In fact, they’re not a reflection of U.S. policy. But he’s obviously a subject matter expert and speaking about domestic American politics.

So with that, Mr. Gans, I’ll give the floor to you. I’ll let him make some opening remarks and then we’ll open up the floor to questions.

MR. GANS: Yeah, and the opening remarks may be no more than five minutes, which is essentially to say I am an expert on voting behavior in the United States and on issues surrounding that. I am not particularly an expert on the senior vote, although I keep getting invited to symposia on that issue.

The first thing I think I want to say is two general comments. One general comment is no voting cohort is a monolith. There are differing views within the cohort, and particularly on this cohort. Secondly, the relevance of any cohort to the outcome of an election is the degree to which there is a difference, a measurable difference, within the cohort. So for instance, if blacks vote 93 to 7 in favor of the Democrats or evangelicals vote 80 to 20 in favor of the Democrats [Republicans], that means more than anybody dividing 50-50, as the senior vote is likely to divide much closer to 50-50 than other cohorts.

One of the things that has always been true and continues to be true, only slightly lesser in the elections of 2004 and 2008, is that people over the age of 65 vote much more heavily than people below that age. In midterm elections, people over the age of 65 vote about three times the rate of people who are 18 to 24.

Coffee hasn’t come yet, right? (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Not quite.

MR. GANS: In presidential elections like this one, it’s about a 60-40 ratio between the highest age groups and the lowest age groups. The country experienced a decline in voter participation essentially from 1960 through 1998, but we’ve had two elections with substantially high increases – turnout in 2004 and 2008, 2004 the highest since 1968 and 2008 the highest since 1960, which was the highest since women got the vote in 1920.

Every age cohort – going between 1960 and 1998, every age cohort except people 65 and over had a decline in participation, but people over the age of 65 actually had an increase, largely because of people over the age of 75. And that’s because of modern medicine. Essentially, people older could vote, where they couldn’t before.

People over the age of 65 tend not to be evenly scattered across the United States. They are in percentages larger than their overall numbers in the population in places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, the Rust Belt, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in New York, although however their vote is on the presidential level won’t make that much difference.

When I grew up, which was a long time ago – and I think one of the reasons I got invited to this seminar is because whether I know anything about the vote of senior citizens, I am about to be 75 next month – but when I was growing up, and through, I think, the 1960s and early ’70s, the cohort over the age of 65 was essentially a Democratic cohort, with a capital D. And that was essentially gratitude to Roosevelt and to Truman and to Johnson for all the things – the safety net that they created – helped create for seniors.

It began to change in about 19 – well, starting in 1972, but most importantly in the ’80s – 1972 because people over age of 65 were somewhat – again, it’s a balancing act, but a plurality of them were turned off by the excesses on the liberal side in the early 1970s. Richard Nixon essentially developed the – targeted them as well as targeting urban ethnics in order to split those people off from the Democratic constituency. And that was consolidated a little bit with Ronald Reagan.

Because people over the age of 65 vote heavily, it was axiomatic that that’s the people who you wanted to go after if you were a campaign. On the other hand, if you’re both saying, as they were until this coming election or the 2008 election that you’re going to protect Social Security, you’re going to protect Medicare, and you’re – you’re not creating a difference that’s salient to those people.

I think two things – well, we have an election that’s coming up that the overarching issue is the economy and the – and it will mostly be decided on whether, between now and Labor Day, it looks like the economy is getting better or it looks like the economy is getting worse. It looks like – if it looks like the economy is getting better, it will be hard for President Obama to lose, and the Democrats probably on other levels. The politics will make some gains even though you have an incumbent Democrat in the White House. And if the economy is looking in the other direction, there’s almost no way he can win.

So, I mean, the critical question is: What does the trend in GDP and what does the trend in the unemployment rate augur? Because people make their decisions by Labor Day on that set of issues. It’s why George H.W. Bush in 1992 could not win even though the country was recovering from a recession at that time. But people didn’t feel it, and the numbers didn’t really change until after June.

You have cross-cutting going on in this election, and I don’t know how it’s going to – amongst people who are seniors, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out. On one level, I think Paul Ryan’s budget will be seen as a threat by older people, that – their guarantees – however much he says we’re not going to touch the people who are already old, they’re going to see that that’s possibly mutable because he is putting a lot things on the table that have not been on the table. And so that’s going to act to the detriment of the Republicans.

On the other hand, the people over the age of 65 tend to be more conservative – not your likely evangelicals, but on social issues. And I don’t think – however meritorious President Obama’s recent statement on gay marriage may be, in the abstract, I don’t think that’s going to help him with people over the age of 65. And I think it’s going to seriously hurt him in states that he would like to capture, like Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana. I think Virginia is still a tossup, but it didn’t help him in Virginia either. But I think, having moved the senior population to a more conservative bent, one of the places that they are considerably more conservative than the rest of the electorate is on some of these social issues.

And I think I’m going to stop here. We can talk about anything, the Electoral College, no – what – but whatever you would like to talk about.

Oh, there is one other thing, which is essentially to say I think turnout will be down this year and I think we will resume the downward trend that existed between ’60 and ’98 with some particular factors from this year, but I think there are broader factors that have occurred. And we can talk about those too.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ll now open the floor to questions. We’d just like to remind our participants that if you can please raise your hand, identify yourself by name and news organization, and then proceed with your question.

MR. GANS: Sir.

QUESTION: I’m Matt Rusling with Xinhua. Since the election is pretty much about the economy, how are seniors seeing this, since a lot of them are retirees or who are going to retire, and the economy – jobs might not be an issue for them?

MR. GANS: Well, but fixed incomes are an issue, and their house may be an issue, and their savings may be an issue. In fact, I think probably people over the age of 65 are more frightened than any other age cohort in the country.

QUESTION: So the economy is going to be a bigger issue for them?

MR. GANS: It’s going to be at least as big an issue because they do not have the ability to make up new money. And we may be in a period where traditional events, investments in – we already have it in houses, but we may have it in stocks also going downhill. So it will not only affect people at the bottom – toward the bottom end of the income scale, but also people who are middle class.

MODERATOR: All right. Our second question is coming from New York. Go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon. Marta Torres from La Razon newspaper from Spain. Could you please talk a little bit about the weakest and the strongest points of each candidate in general terms?

MR. GANS: Well, I don’t love to do that, which is to say I hate to get into things that are partisan. I mean, I think people see the President basically as a straight shooter, somebody who is calm in a time of crisis, somebody who has a foreign policy record that makes it impossible for the Republicans to really attack him on those types of issues.

His weakest points are the failure to sell the healthcare bill effectively when it passed, and that’s a liability for him, and the other thing is the economy. If it doesn’t look like it’s turning around, and you’re a Republican candidate or the party, you’re going to say, “Do you want four more years of this?” Now it is entirely true that the Republican Party in Congress made it impossible for the Obama Administration to add to the stimulus that they had – that they put forward right after they got elected, which lots of people said was inadequate, and it turned out to be inadequate. But Republicans essentially have made it impossible to revisit that issue unless he gets reelected. So that’s a weakness if the economy still looks like it’s going down, or is it stagnate.

Now, Romney has a strength insofar as he has a successful record in Massachusetts which he is running away from, but he – but that’s an important part. He’s offering a different approach to the economy, which seems a lot like the George W. Bush approach to the economy, or essentially the supply side, lower regulation, lower taxes approach to the economy. But it’s a difference, and when – people may want change on that issue.

His weakest points are that he is not trusted by the conservative element of his party, and there’s hardly an issue in which he hasn’t been on both sides. And so people don’t know – it’s sort of like – there was a show in which – where you had three people with the same name, and you had to figure out which one was the real one. And they’re looking for – will the real Mitt Romney stand up. And I don’t think people know what that – and if Obama can make this not an issue of Bain Capital or any one of a number – or the Romney economic plan, but make it an issue of character, he might have some traction even if the economy doesn’t get better.

MODERATOR: All right. We have –

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Dorothea Hahn. I work for a newspaper in Germany, Die Tageszeitung

MR. GANS: Where in Germany?

QUESTION: Well, it’s national, but it’s based in Berlin.

MR. GANS: Okay. I mean, my father was born in Vacha, which is near Eisenach, and my mother was born in Wiesbaden. So I know a little bit about –

QUESTION: Okay. A little about Germany. (Laughter.)

MR. GANS: But I don’t speak German, and that’s because I was stubborn as a child and essentially told my parents, “Speak English.” (Laughter.) Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’ve got two questions. One is concerning the economy. The other one is about women’s vote. You say that the voters will take their decision between now and Labor Day. I would like to know what is – since he has no majority in the House, what’s the possible leverage of Obama to influence on the economy in the (inaudible)?

MR. GANS: That’s the problem. He really doesn’t have an ability to influence. He has to hope that what he’s already put in place will help the economy, because Congress is not going to let him put anything else in place, and he doesn’t have a lot of ability to use – he only has the ability to use executive authority on the margins. So he’s got to hope that what he’s already put in place will help.

And that depends on a lot of things. I mean, we – I tend to agree with people like Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf that what we have in the United States is a demand recession and that until you get people hired, they’re not going to buy. And when they’re not going to buy, people don’t produce, and when they both – people don’t produce and people don’t buy, your tax revenues go down, and essentially – so we’re stuck with that, and I don’t know how – there’s some indication that manufacturing has been improving. I tend to be a pessimist on the state of our economy because of the demand side. And then we have what’s happening in Europe, which doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better at any time soon, and that affects us. So I – I think it – if I were sitting in Obama’s shoes, I would take to prayer. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: You had a second question?

QUESTION: The second part about women’s vote. There is a lot of talk about the so-called war against women and the different vote of women. Could you first explain whether, according to you, there is really going to be a difference in the decision of women – of female and male voters --

MR. GANS: Well --

QUESTION: -- and if this women’s vote would also be different among seniors?

MR. GANS: I think, by and large, amongst the overall female population, the Democrats will get substantial benefit, despite the fact that I think they’re overplaying their hand by talking about a war on women. But on the basic issues of contraception, choice, trying to get people hired, trying to do something about our educational system, trying to deal with child – children’s health, all – and reducing our foreign policy thrust toward military – all of those things I think influence women to be – that women will be substantially more in favor of Obama than they will be of Romney, and substantially more in favor of Democrats on lower levels, although some of that will not be as effective in southern states, for instance.

I think probably a little less so amongst older women, because older women are somewhat more conservative on reproductive rights issues, gays, and things like that. But I would be surprised if there wasn’t a gap within women, as a cohort, between at least five percentage points, 55-45 or higher. That – unfortunately for Obama, it’s almost the opposite amongst blue collar workers, white. He won’t do as well as he did amongst those in 2008. He probably won’t do as well as he did amongst Latinos in 2008, although that will be close because the Republican Party is seen as anti-immigrant. And he won’t do as well with young people as he did in 2008. Not that they won’t vote for him; those who go to the polls will vote for him in probably the same ratio as they did in 2008. They won’t go to the polls in the same number.

The only group that I know he will keep, both in terms of allegiance and numbers, is African Americans, and I think also, to some extent, women.

MODERATOR: We actually had a question submitted via email by Adele Smith of Le Figaro. And she wanted to ask if you think that healthcare reform is going to play for or against President Obama amongst the elderly in this year’s election.

MR. GANS: Well, there are lots of parts to that question. The first part is: What is the Supreme Court going to do? If the Supreme Court declares the individual mandate and the employer mandate unconstitutional, I actually think it takes healthcare – the President’s liability on healthcare out of the line of fire and makes it easier for him, because then he can campaign against what the Republicans are proposing for healthcare, which only benefits people in the upper middle class and upper classes.

If it – if the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the mandate – it’s the mandate that’s unpopular. And so that will create a tension between the Paul Ryan healthcare plan and the individual mandate. And I think Obama will lose that debate unless they figure out a way to sell the healthcare plan a lot better than they have been doing up to now.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I’m from World Business Press Online news --

MR. GANS: From where?

QUESTION: From Slovakia. And my question is – I think it was mentioned also here today – senior voters or voters over 65 years, they tend to be more conservative, but at the same time they are more frightened on the social issues.

MR. GANS: That’s what I hear.

QUESTION: And Democrats are those ones who are maybe fostering the Social Security more than Republican. So maybe – what should Obama and his Administration do in a way to secure also these conservative, frightened voters?

MR. GANS: Well, I mean, what the Administration is going to do, assuming that the economy does not go this way, is essentially deal – put to the forefront the Ryan type of approach on senior security, whether it’s health or Social Security or whatever, and make that a central issue. And since Governor Romney has bought into that approach, you can indeed tie into it.

Now he’s – apparently he’s coming out with his own healthcare plan this week. But I don’t think he’s going to deviate that much from the Ryan approach because of the fact that he’s – has – already has trouble with the conservative wing of the Republican party. Actually, I don’t think it’s the conservative wing; I think it’s the radical right wing. The conservatives is what Romney was and what Bob Bennett was and what Orrin Hatch is. We have a new definition of conservative, which is not really conservative in any traditional sense.

MODERATOR: Do you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: I – well, I would like just one more question, please.

MR. GANS: I’m at your disposal.

QUESTION: Actually, regarding the senior voters, I see this trend also in the United States, also in Europe, in many countries, that if society is changing, the society is aging.

MR. GANS: Right.

QUESTION: So there are still more and more older voters. How you observe during the years the change in the society in the political scheme? How does it influence the politicians, and now especially in the United States, of making decisions and also a focus on the world (inaudible). (Inaudible) groups which is the seniors is still a larger and larger group.

MR. GANS: Well, I’m not going to – it creates a public policy problem, which has its political overtones. The central question is the question of revenue. If we’re going to govern without revenue enhancement, it could mean that an increasing burden on the budget will be towards senior entitlements, partly because of inflation and partly because of population. We’ll be substantially larger, and the people putting in money to those entitlements will be substantially smaller. I mean, that’s going to rebound, I think, to the detriment of the Republican Party.

I think they can’t over the long haul – I mean, not in this election necessary, but they can’t over the long haul say that the deficient and debt are the central issues in this country. I mean, yes, we have to deal with that, but if you define that in – as the central issue, what you’re really defining is that you don’t want much government. I mean, that’s essentially what they’re saying, and some of them will say that overtly.

On the other hand, we’re not going to fund the entitlements for the future just by taxing people with incomes over $250,000. We need a – in this country, a major revision of our tax code, which may include a value-added tax. It may include a carbon tax. It may – it should include raising the level of income that is tax for entitlement programs – unemployment and Social Security, the payroll tax. It means no closing out loopholes and what’s now called tax expenditures like the mortgage – deductibility of mortgages for second homes and farm subsidies. There are a whole series of things that could be attacked to increase revenue. But, I mean, the central issue is ultimately, we’re going to have to raise revenue. There’s no question about that.


MODERATOR: New York, please go ahead with your question.


MODERATOR: New York, hang on just one second. We can’t actually hear you. I think somebody needs to turn off their mute to New York.

QUESTION: Can you hear me now?


QUESTION: Hi, my name is Robert Poredos from Slovenia Press Agency. And sir, you said before that President Obama’s stance on the gay marriage can only hurt him in certain states. I agree with you completely. And then we have all the other different issues. So – but my question would be: If the economy, by some miracle, gets better, will all those other issues matter? And if economy doesn’t get better, and then besides the government, what do you think would be the other worst issue for Obama, or what’s making (inaudible) the most?

MR. GANS: At this point, the worst issue for Obama nationally beyond the economy is healthcare. Now, I’m not sure he can turn it around because he didn’t do a good job of selling it the first time around. But we don’t know what that issue will be until we get the Supreme Court decision, and – now, the gay marriage has a particular effect in the South.

If you remember back in 1994, when some of us were alive and – (laughter) – prior to getting into – assuming the presidency and after the election in 1992, Bill Clinton made an offhand remark in response to a question about gays in the military, and essentially supported the idea of gay – that was one of the major reasons why the South in 1994 shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, and there’s enough of that sentiment still there to make it very difficult, I think, for Obama to turn that around in this election after he did that statement. And particularly it hurts in Florida and in North Carolina in the South where he won in 2008, and it makes it much harder for him to win in 2012. I think it also affects the conservative state of Indiana.

And it affects Virginia, but Virginia is a peculiar state insofar as there are pockets of moderate liberalism in the Washington suburbs and around Norfolk, and to some extent in the immediate Richmond area, that might balance off the rest of the state which is much more conservative.

MODERATOR: All right. I think that’s all the time that we have today. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up to the --

MODERATOR: We can probably wrap up with a follow-up, because as you know, we’ve got another briefing at 3 o’clock, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. No, my second question was what’s your sense, sir – if the government gets better, would all the other issues matter or not?

MR. GANS: Well, it would have to get substantially better for none of the other issues to matter. (Laughter.) But --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. GANS: It – no, if it gets better, it makes Obama a much stronger candidate, and it makes Romney’s carping with less of a foundation, and that’s what will happen. People think well of Obama as a person, and they think well of him on a whole series of issues, but not including the economy.

Do you want to ask a question quickly?

QUESTION: No, no, no. Okay.

MR. GANS: Okay. Sir?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question. My name is Matthias Kolb. I work in (inaudible) Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung (inaudible), and I was interested to hear your opinion about the debates. There will be debates by the vice president and by the presidential candidates, and I think what we saw during the primary season, that debate really mattered. Do you think this will be a decisive point as well, or are the blocks (inaudible)?

MR. GANS: Well, you can’t know whether they’ll matter. I mean, sometimes the debates are very important in our politics. They were very important in 1960, not so much about what was said but how the candidates looked. They were very important in 1980 because Ronald Reagan had to achieve a minimal threshold of credibility, which he did. They were somewhat important in 2000.

I mean, I looked at the election of 2000 in this framework, and then I will shut up and – but we can talk privately if you want to. The – it was decided very narrowly. People were tired of the circus of the Clinton Administration. They saw George W. Bush as a nice person, and he projected compassionate conservatism, but they weren’t sure he was competent to be president. On the other hand, they were absolutely sure that Al Gore was competent to be president, but they weren’t sure they liked him, and they were waiting for the various personas of Al Gore to gel into something.

Now, the debates hurt Al Gore because he didn’t gel into something. He was a populist one time; he was something else another time. So the debates can be important, and then again, they may not have a major influence. It was not, for instance, the debates in 1992 that elected Clinton. It was the three-R election: recession, “Read my lips,” and Ross Perot that elected him – Clinton.

MODERATOR: All right. Well, with that, we’ll finish up this briefing. We’d like to thank Mr. Gans again for speaking with us today, and we’ll have a briefing transcript out to you shortly. Thank you all very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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