There’s been a lot of fully justified talk about Democrats making big gains among college-educated suburbanites in the 2018 midterms. Higher Latino turnout helped in certain parts of the country. Young people voted in numbers better than some expected, and remained solidly Democratic. And even in that famously pro-MAGA demographic, white working-class voters, there were signs of Donkey progress.
But let’s don’t ignore the fact that another recently conservative demographic group became bluer than in the last two elections: seniors. According to exit polls, over-65 voters went Republican by a spare two points (50-48). Republicans carried them 58-42 in 2010; 56-44 in 2012; 57-41 in 2014 and 52-45 in 2016. Even in 2008, the year of the Obama landslide, Republicans won seniors 53-45. This improvement by Democrats was particularly significant in that seniors are a steadily increasing percentage of the electorate; growing from 20 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2014 and 26 percent this year. It also suggests that some polarization scenarios that pit old conservatives against young progressives are a bit oversold.
Even in what we think of as the heartland of Trumpism, among older white people, Democrats made similar progress. They won 36 percent of white seniors in 2014, 39 percent in 2016 and then 43 percent in 2018. A rising percentage of a rising portion of the electorate is a very good sign.
There are, of course, possible avenues for a renewed Republican trend among seniors, particularly if they stay away from proposing major benefit reductions for Medicare and Social Security (as they largely have since Trump became their leader). All other things being equal, senior, and particularly white seniors, are relatively conservative on cultural issues, including immigration. And even on “their” entitlement programs, it’s possible that Democrats will offer too much of a good thing, as Frederick Lynch recently warned:
Older Americans probably suspect (as was the case with the Affordable Care Act) that Medicare for All might produce “socialized medicine” that could shift Medicare resources from seniors to younger populations. In addition, these fears and resentments would be compounded if the resources were stretched to include millions of unauthorized immigrants who would become eligible for universal health care through citizenship.
Mr. Trump has already articulated such fears and previewed a likely Republican strategy to attack Medicare for All as a “socialist” scheme that will bankrupt Medicare: At a September rally in Montana, he said that Democrats want to turn the country into (socialist) Venezuela, destroying Social Security, and that “they say ‘Medicare for All’ until they run out of money, which will be the third day, and it will be Medicare for nobody.
Rebutting such myths will be essential for Democrats advocating a universal single-payer program. But most of all, Democrats need to avoid the temptation of mentally writing off old folks —especially old white folks — as they pursue what some have called a “coalition of the ascendant.” In the end, a vote’s a vote, and there are too many seniors voting to make them anything other than a constant target, even if Democrats don’t “win” them.