Across the country, amid the heat swell of the ongoing health care debate, many of the nation’s gray panthers have a new fire growing in their bellies, attending town halls, writing letters, and shifting the balance of political power as polls show them moving to the GOP.
They are not just making themselves heard on their key issues of Medicare and insurance, but giving their legislators a piece of their mind that a way of life is slipping away.
“They” are seniors like Jerry Johnson, a 75-year-old retired yacht salesman from Tallahassee, Fla. He says he’s spending his days delving into issues like a seasoned Washington pundit.
“I’m doing this for my kids,” he says of his activism, which includes talking with voters, attending town-hall meetings and listening to political radio “12 hours a day.”
“They all have lives and are busy working but I’m really concerned about the debt and the world they’ll have to face,” he said. “I see myself as their warrior because I see our country slipping away. It’s going to go a lot more quickly unless someone like me gets active. I’ve got the time.”
Mr. Johnson said it’s the most politically engaged he’s been in his life, and there’s a reason for that. The Michigan native said that since the last presidential election, the stakes have never been so high, which is why he’s out of his easy chair and moving into the fray.
While senior voters were nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats during the 2008 presidential election, there has been a “striking” shift toward the GOP in recent months, said Tom Jensen, communications director at Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C.
A poll two weeks ago found Republicans winning on a generic ballot among seniors, after recent polling had found that 46 percent of seniors identify themselves as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats and 22 percent as independents.
“Almost every poll we do when we break it down by age, President Obama is least popular with seniors. That is definitely the age group that he is having the most problem with,” Mr. Jensen said. “If not for those senior citizens, Democrats would have the lead on a generic ballot. But overall, American voters say 45 to 41 that they will vote Republican next year and it’s the seniors who are making that happen.
“What makes it even a bigger implication for the midterm elections is because seniors cast a much larger percentage of votes in midterms than they do in presidential years,” he said. “Not only are they leaning more Republican these days but they are also likely to be a much bigger slice of the electorate in 2010 than they were in 2009.”
Indeed, while seniors historically vote in full force in midterm elections, President Obama’s administration will find itself struggling to deal with this class of voters in 2010, said Andrea Campbell, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has written about senior political engagement.
“This is the age group for which health care is the most salient. The idea that reform might take some money out of the Medicare budget has them understandably alarmed by what this reform might bring,” she said.
“The whole notion of a public option, a lot of people take ideological or practical umbrage at that,” Ms. Campbell said.
“There is a lot of uncertainty around this that breeds fear. The problem for the Obama administration with health care reform is the fact that they are operating in a political system that is oriented toward the status quo. It’s much easier to stop major legislation than to pass it.”
The political rejuvenation of seniors is a hot issue for organizations representing them, particularly the AARP and the 60-Plus Association.