02/28/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Expanding Social Security; Good Policy and Good Politics

Over the past few months, events in Washington have changed the narrative going into the midterm Congressional elections several times, from the government shutdown and threat of default to the roll out of the Affordable Care Act. But the real key to the 2014 election rests in budget discussions and other behind the scenes maneuvers. Democrats have an opportunity to push for expanding Social Security -- and by doing so -- better perform among seniors and pre-retirement voters come election time (who, after seeing their savings decimated by the recession are even more worried about retirement than seniors).

Social Security is a top voting issue for America's seniors, who are a larger proportion of the electorate in mid-term election years than in Presidential election years. In the past two midterms, 2006 and 2010, seniors made up an average of 20 percent of the electorate according to exit polls. In 2008 and 2012, they made up an average of 16 percent. Democrats struggled with seniors in the last two elections, losing by 11 points in 2012 (according to national House exit polls. Romney carried seniors by a 12 point margin), and a whopping 21 point margin in 2010. In the 2008 and 2006 wave elections Democrats fared much better, winning seniors by 1 point in 2008 and drawing even in 2006. Democrats won among pre-retirement voters (between ages 50-64) in 2010 by a 1 point margin, and lost them by a 6 point margin in 2012 among.

Democrats cannot hold the Senate or take back the House without competing for seniors and pre-retirement voters. In the Republican wave of 2010, margins among seniors were crucial for Democrats to hold the Senate. According to exit polls in 2010 for example, where a Democrat lost the senior vote by 11 percent or more, they lost the Senate race (except Delaware). Where a Democrat lost the senior vote by 8 percent or less, or they won the senior vote, they won (except Wisconsin).

Today, the landscape for Democrats among seniors looks more like 2006 and 2008 than it does 2010 or 2012. Each election saw large national dynamics at play and the story of 2014 is just starting to take shape. Our most recent battleground survey shows Republicans with a 7 point advantage among seniors (44 percent Republican, 37 percent Democrat), up from a 1 point margin among seniors in October, but still within the margins of 2006 and 2008.

Part of this advantage comes from views of which party would handle Social Security better. Our most recent data on this showed seniors think Democrats would handle Social Security better than Republicans by an 8 point margin (46 percent Democrat, 38 percent Republican). Among pre-retirement voters aged 45-64, 52 percent think Democrats would handle Social Security best, compared to 35 percent who think Republicans would be best. In our Election Eve/Day survey in 2012, seniors thought Republicans in Congress would better handle Social Security by a 15 point margin compared to Democrats in Congress (46 percent Republicans, 31 percent Democrats).

Why this drastic shift? In the last election, we saw an aggressive effort by Republicans to position themselves as saviors of both Medicare and Social Security. Despite proposing cutting Medicare Advantage by 700 billion under the budget put forth by Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Republicans relentlessly attacked President Obama and Democrats for the same cuts in the Affordable Care Act, which polarized the issue for many seniors. But for the 36 percent of seniors in our poll who cited Medicare or Social Security as a top voting issue, they voted decisively for the President by a 14 point margin, compared to the 12 point advantage Romney received from seniors overall.

Voters have clear policy preferences when it comes to Social Security: they want to expand the program. The one proposal in our 2012 Election Day poll with strong approval across demographics is to gradually require employers and employees to pay Social Security taxes above the $110,100 cap (today the cap is $117,000). A 64 percent majority favored this proposal, including 55 percent who strongly favor. In the same poll, 71 percent opposed reducing benefits for those earning over $60,000 today when they retire, 67 percent opposed raising the retirement age to 69, and a 48 percent plurality opposed reducing cost of living increases for current beneficiaries.

More recent polling conducted this past August by Public Policy Polling in several states with 2014 Senate elections asked respondents directly if they support or oppose increasing Social Security benefits "resulting in a worker at age 75 receiving $452 more in benefits per year and a worker at age 85 receiving $807 more per year." Majorities of voters support this proposal including 51 percent of voters in Kentucky, 52 percent of voters in Iowa, 56 percent of voters in Texas, and 61 percent of voters in Colorado.

Recently, Republicans have abandoned their aggressive positioning on Medicare and Social Security in favor of an ideological fight over healthcare. In the process they have provided Democrats with the clearest contrast in years on which party will better protect and expand the commitment that so many seniors rely on and spent their life contributing toward.

Social Security and Medicare offer Democrats a great issue to pivot from Affordable Care Act and define the election. As the economy improves, retirement security will become a dominant economic issue, a key component of closing the gap between rich and poor and ensuring a strong middle class. Democrats should not fall in the trap of program cuts to Social Security and Medicare. As budget negotiations continue, Democrats would be wise push for expansions to Social Security that would help seniors and provide a great contrast to Republicans in the lead up to the midterm elections. It is good politics and good policy.