Every election year, a lot of political energy on both sides of the aisle is spent engaging new voters, especially younger ones, strategizing how to get them to turn out in greater numbers and vote at higher rates. Such a focus, however, neglects an important but often unasked question: what about the voters who already turn up in large numbers, namely voters older than 50?
Americans in this demographic represent 45 percent of the voting age population, but they consistently make up more than half the active electorate. Voters aged 50 to 64 have a 64 percent turnout rate, compared to only 26 percent of voters aged 18 to 29. That fact alone makes them important for virtually any campaign strategy.
Put another way, the easiest road to the White House, and perhaps majorities in the House and Senate as well, likely runs through voters older than 50.
This is just one of many findings from a recent report from AARP, an interest group whose mission is “to empower people to choose how they live as they age.” The report features the latest polling results from AARP and outlines several key things to know about older voters.
In terms of issues that concern older voters, health care — not just Social Security and Medicare — is the name of the game. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in the 50+ demographic all ranked health care as one of their top three issues. One reason for this is that only 51 percent of voters aged 50 to 64 said they could afford their health care.
“Health care is a transcendent issue. Virtually everybody is focused on the cost of health care,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President & Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, during a virtual briefing with Third Way, a center-left think tank.
“A few months ago we had a major effort underway on the cost of prescription drugs, which routinely polled in the 70, 80 percent area across all characteristics as something that needed to be gotten under control,” LeaMond added, highlighting a specific facet of older voters’ concern.
Older voters are also suffering economically from the pandemic, and not just because they tend to be more vulnerable to COVID-19. The unemployment rate of workers older than 55 has jumped ten percent since March. Half said they are worried about their income, and a quarter are considering delaying retirement.
Not surprisingly, given their relatively high turnout rates, older voters are highly engaged with the news cycle. Among those aged 65 and up, 95 percent are closely following news about the pandemic, and 70 percent are paying a lot of attention to election campaigns. Most of them still get most of their news from television, but Facebook ranked as a big news source as well, with half of voters older than 50 saying they regularly look at news websites and log in to Facebook.
Older voters are more excited than usual to vote in 2020, suggesting their turnout rate will be even higher than it already is, but the jury’s still out on who they’ll break for. They favored Donald Trump in the 2016 race by seven points, but a shift in Democrats’ favor among older voters powered the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. So far this year they have been making up their minds relatively late in the election cycle.
“I feel as if we are in such a topsy-turvy environment that things are not settled and people are really looking at, in the case of the presidential race, both candidates very carefully, and in senate races as well,” LeaMond said.
One subgroup among older voters that the AARP report identified as crucial to watch is older women. In the 2018 midterms, women over age 50 represented 30 percent of the total voting population. From an electoral perspective, they “punched above their weight” in critical battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Florida by making up a larger share of the electorate than their portion of the population. About a quarter of these women are in poor or fair health, including 44 percent whose annual incomes are less than $25,000. This may help explain why health care is such a great concern.