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.
“I’ve been in Washington 45 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jim Martin, leader of 60-Plus, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the mammoth AARP.
The debate over health care reform has stoked senior fires in a way that has even him surprised, said Mr. Martin, who added that his membership ranks have grown after TV and print ads they have run (including in The Washington Times) calling for a do-over on the proposed health care legislation HR 3200, which his association opposes. He says he’s received thousands of e-mails in the past few months of both outrage and support.
“I think the president’s rhetoric has run smack dab into reality and our seniors are not taking it,” he said of the mood. “I think a senior citizens tsunami is headed toward the halls of Congress. Some politicians are going to be in a heap of trouble in 2010.”
At AARP, legislative policy director David Certner said his membership was engaged on the health care issue during the run-up to the presidential election last year and that it remains a key concern today. Most AARP members want clear answers on specifics to reform. He said he thinks the heat of the summer’s angry town halls has subsided in the past month, but not the dialogue.
“There was a fair amount of intensity over the summer,” he said. “I think our folks that are out there doing events, the temperature of these meetings have come down a little bit. There is very much more dialogue than anger.
“We have tons of people who are just trying to find out what is in the bill, saying, ‘Can you explain some things I am hearing?’ ” Mr. Certner said of the reaction. “We’re spending a lot of time now providing information to membership … using multiple channels to get information out.”
The health care issue has been hard on the AARP’s 40-million member ranks. According to an Associated Press report, the group has lost about 60,000 members since July 1 amid its position in supporting an overhaul of health care. Mr. Certner said his group remains nonpartisan and has not supported any specific legislation.
AARP spokesman Drew Nannis said he didn’t have updated membership numbers but that the organization has seen a shift in tone from earlier in the summer.
“People have questions and we want to provide them with answers,” Mr. Nannis said in an e-mail. “That’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Mr. Johnson, the retiree from Florida who said he joined the 60-Plus Association, warned that he plans to hold members of Congress accountable. He said he has spoken with more than 300 voters in his own community, urging them to get engaged and make their voices heard as reform efforts continue, particularly on health care.
“I’m going to continue to be active locally if it means ringing doorbells - whatever it takes,” he said.
He said he thinks far too many lawmakers are working to advance their own careers - not his interests. His health is good and he’s satisfied with his insurance, he added, but he knows that he’s vulnerable and he wants to make sure he’s protected.
“I think my job is going to be pretty easy,” he said of reaching his senior peers. “I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and I plan to be out there. I’ve decided to pry into it all. I need a lot of answers about our future. Young people are busy, and they don’t have time to look after this. But I do.”