Although individuals aged 65 and over comprise 13 percent of the population, they have represented one in five voters in recent elections. Based on demographics and voting behavior data, 2012 will be no different.
The primary factor is their higher turnout rate compared to the overall rate of the voting-age population. In 2008, for example, while just under 63 percent of voting-age individuals actually voted, 68 percent of 65+ individuals cast ballots. (Source: U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk, Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election, 2009 biennial)
In a trio of key battleground states, older voters are likely to have an even more disproportionate impact in this election. These states (and their electoral votes) are Florida (29), New Mexico (5), and Pennsylvania (20). Older voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate in Florida than any other state. In 2008, more than one in four Floridian voters was over age 65. Older voters do not constitute as high a percentage of the electorate in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, but their proportions in both are higher than the national average.
In polls, President Obama has consistently trailed Mitt Romney among older voters. For example, the latest Pew poll shows Romney leading by 55-38 percent with 65+ voters. (In 2008, this was the only age group that voted for John McCain, by a margin of 8 percentage points.)
Combining a double-digit age gap with the higher turnout rate of 65+ voters may cost Obama 54 electoral votes from these three states that he carried in 2008. If he also loses five other states he carried in 2008 (Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia) plus one Congressional District in Nebraska, he will only win 253 electoral votes, falling 17 short of the 270 needed for re-election.
How likely is this scenario? It is most likely in Florida. If he loses older voters by a margin of 10 percentage points in the Sunshine State, Obama will need to win 52 percent of non-elderly voters. Recent polls indicate that he and Romney are running neck-and-neck.
In New Mexico, this scenario is less likely. Even if Obama were to lose older voters in New Mexico by a margin of 15 points, he would need to win 53 percent of non-elderly voters. Recent polls indicate that he is winning 54 percent of the vote in this state. Winning New Mexico's 5 electoral votes will bring his total to 258.
This brings us to Pennsylvania, a state that Obama won in 2008 with 54.5 percent of the vote. Of Pennsylvania's 9.8 million voting-eligible residents, 62.6 percent were registered to vote in 2010. Assuming the same turnout rate of 60.8 percent as in 2008, approximately 6.1 million Pennsylvanians will cast votes. If older Pennsylvanians turn out at their 2008 national average of 68%, then just over 1.3 million of the state's voters, or 22 percent, will be 65+. If Obama loses this age group by 10 percentage points to Romney (585,000 to 715,000), then he will need to carry 2.465 million or 51.4 percent of the remaining 4.8 million non-elderly voters to win a majority vote of just over 3.05 million. According to RealClearPolitics' latest average of Pennsylvania polls, Obama leads Romney by 49.5 percent to 44.8 percent with the remaining vote still undecided. In none of the polls tracked by RCP does Obama exceed 51 percent.
If the Keystone States' older voters propel Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes into the Romney column, he will win the election with 280 electoral votes. (And he will be the first Republican Presidential candidate in history to win without Ohio.)
This shouldn't come as a surprise. In Pennsylvania's 2008 Presidential primary, Hillary Clinton's strong showing among older voters helped give her a 55-45 percent win over Barack Obama and underscored the latter's ongoing problem with this segment of the electorate.
Moreover, the Obama campaign will have no one to blame but itself, if it loses the election because of the double-digit age gap. According to a recent article in The New Yorker by Ryan Lizza ("The Final Push: The Obama team's high-risk strategy," October 29-November 5, 2012), the Obama re-election strategy rests on what Lizza calls the "four pillars of the modern Democratic Party" -- African-Americans, Hispanics, the young, and highly-educated whites. Although some older voters are included in three of these four "pillars," they are not identified as a key target segment of the campaign. Instead of galvanizing the gray vote, the Obama campaign seems to have jettisoned them.
What's worse is that the campaign's message on the two issues about which older voters care most -- Social Security and Medicare -- has been muddled. One of the most distressing moments of his awful first debate was when President Obama declared that he did not see a major difference with Romney on Social Security. By giving this key issue away, Obama lost a major opportunity to make headway with many older voters who don't trust Republicans when it comes to Social Security. As for Medicare, the Obama campaign has been trying to regain the Democratic Party's historical advantage on this issue by hammering away at the Paul Ryan voucher plan. Unfortunately, reducing Medicare Advantage subsidies to help fund Obamacare put Democrats on the defensive in 2010, causing them to lose older voters by a staggering 21-percentage points in that year's Congressional elections. What has been sorely missing from the Obama campaign is a full-throated championing of both programs and a commitment not to reduce their protection for current and future generations of older Americans.
A stronger message may not have been enough to give the President a majority of older voters. Reducing the margin of the age gap to win Pennsylvania may prove to have been all that was needed.