The 2010 elections accelerated the movement of seniors away from the Democratic Party. This year Republicans carried the senior vote by 21 points, a sharp rise from their 8 point win in 2008 and 2 point loss in 2006. This trend is magnified by the growing percentage of the electorate over age 65, which rose from 19 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2010.
What is happening? To me, the Republicans and their allies in corporate America have capitalized on the graying of the electorate by targeting seniors with a sustained barrage of misinformation and scare tactics about health care and retirement security.
So how can Democrats win back seniors? Here are four ways:
Save Social Security. Social Security may be our nation's greatest success story, but it isn't getting much love these days. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, chairs of a federal fiscal commission, want to raise the retirement age and cut benefits for current and future retirees. John Boehner has pledged that a Republican-led House would try to increase the retirement age to 70, which would be devastating for blue collar and service sector workers. The 111th Congress may adjourn without aiding Social Security recipients who, for the second year in a row, were denied a Cost-of-Living Adjustment by an arcane federal formula.
Budget hawks falsely blame Social Security for our deficits and warn of its imminent bankruptcy. The truth is that it has not added a penny to the deficit, and needs only relatively minor structural changes to be around for many more generations. Democrats created Social Security; now they must be the ones to save it.
Be Proud of Health Reform. 2010 saw Democrats running scared, distancing themselves from a law that helps seniors better afford to see a doctor and fill a prescription. This strategy only fueled the lies and the fears. For example, a summer 2010 poll showed 36 percent of seniors still believing in the "death panels" that Sarah Palin warned us about.
Republican hysteria over Medicare cuts -- when in truth it was only cuts in federal overpayments to private insurance companies -- was too often met with stony silence from Democrats. Far too few seniors know we are now closing the Medicare "donut hole" coverage gap, providing free annual tests for chronic diseases, and helping middle-class families afford long-term care. The prospect of repeal votes on Capitol Hill provides a rare second chance to tout a law that helps Americans of all ages.
Be Uniters, Not Dividers. Much has been said about the surge of younger voters in 2008 and their disappearance in 2010. But to be a majority party the Democrats must show that the youth vote and the senior vote are not mutually exclusive. People of all ages want a better economy, safe and affordable neighborhoods, and our troops to come home swiftly and safely. Democrats should be guided by a November 2012 vision of grandparents and grandchildren walking together into the polling place, united in common purpose.
Demography is Destiny -- Act Now Before it is Too Late. None of us are getting any younger, so Democrats need to act now before it is too late. In 2011, the first of 77 million Baby Boomers will turn 65. By 2030, the number of Americans 65 and over will be twice what it was in 2000. One thing we know for sure, seniors vote.
While Republicans were the first to adapt to this changing demography, they chose to respond with fear-mongering and scare tactics. Now it is up to the Democratic Party -- the party that brought us Social Security and Medicare -- to do better, to stand proudly and confidently behind a broad, positive agenda that is good for Americans of all ages.
Barbara J. Easterling is president of the Alliance for Retired Americans. She was previously the secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America. For more information, visit www.retiredamericans.org or call 1-888-373-6497.