Will Romney's Pick Swing The Senior Vote?

Older voters make up a major voting bloc that both candidates will be courting, and Mitt Romney's pick of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has put Medicare and Social Security front-and-center. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses how these voters might respond with Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, from Ben and Jerry to Levi Straus, to Chevy, more companies are targeting the gay and lesbian market. We'll explore what that says about American business and society. That's later in the program.

First, though, we turn to the presidential election and today we'll focus on older voters and Baby Boomers. I hate to tell you, that includes some of us. The choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate puts entitlement programs front and center in the campaign.

And we thought we'd take a look at what that could mean for the senior voting bloc. Ryan is best known for his budget plan that would turn Medicare into a voucher system. To find out how seniors might respond, NPR spoke with some older voters who turned out for Florida's primary election yesterday, including an Obama supporter, Thelma Lewis.

THELMA LEWIS: I'm 62 - well, I'll be 62 next year and I'll be retiring so I want to not have all my retirement go to insurance and trying to keep up with the cost of living.

LYDEN: Thelma Lewis of Tallahassee is scarcely alone. Long before the campaign, the Pew Research Center had been studying attitudes of different generations towards entitlement programs, including Medicare. And more recently, a survey by the AARP found that working Baby Boomers are suffering from anxiety over what they might expect when they retire.

To help us understand this and what it might mean politically, we've called on Andrew Kohut. He's the president of the Pew Research Center. Andy, thank you very much for joining us.

ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be with you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Andy, we have to note that Mitt Romney hasn't yet offered his own plans for entitlement programs, but as we mentioned, transforming Medicare is a signature issue for Congressman Paul Ryan. So understanding that your poll came out before the announcement of the Ryan selection, how receptive were the older people you surveyed to changes in these programs?

KOHUT: Not very receptive. We found a clear majority of 65 and older saying they would oppose a makeover of the Medicare program that would make future - future participants, not them - get a credit toward purchasing private health insurance.

And that opposition is similar to the opposition that they expressed five years ago, when President Bush was proposing allowing younger people to put some of their money into private investments. Older people, seniors, older Baby Boomers, are very, very wary of changes to these systems which they think are working pretty well.

They recognize that there's a deficit problem, but they think keeping these benefits the way they are is more important than even dealing with that deficit, and that's despite the fact that they're deficit hawks.

Now, part of the reason is that when we did our study of seniors, 60 percent of these people are relying principally on Social Security and albeit Medicare as well, for - to live off. And so any change that threatens that, even if it's pledged not to, makes them very uneasy.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Beyond that, beyond this reliance on Social Security and, I suppose by extension, Medicare, what else? Can you break down some of the other issues that people - voters, 50 and over, are most concerned about?

KOHUT: Like everyone else, they think that jobs are the biggest problem facing the country and the deficit, but the people who are over 65 years of age rank Social Security almost as important as jobs. Younger people don't. They put jobs and healthcare and the deficit much higher relative to entitlement.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about older voters and entitlement programs with Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center. And, Andy, I'd like to play two more clips from voters in Florida - Hans Acterch is an 84 year old Tallahassee resident.

HANS ACTERCH: Most seniors are worrying about their retirement benefits or Social Security, but if Social Security runs out of money, nobody's going to get anything. So, I mean, I don't mind government reducing benefits just a little bit or raising the retirement age to 67 or 68. There's nothing wrong with that.

LYDEN: You know, surveys that Pew has done find cross-generational support for keeping Medicare and Social Security as is. Was there anxiety, that if something doesn't change these programs will disappear?

KOHUT: Well, sure. Older people, just like younger people, recognize that we have a large financial problem looming with the deficit and our debt situation. When you get down to the specifics, they're hard pressed to say take this away. They're always looking for another solution and one that doesn't involve - the person you had on air came up with an interesting alternative and that is raise the retirement age.

Well, actually, older people are in favor of raising the retirement age. It's younger people who say, well, wait a minute. Let's not deal with this. So everyone is concerned about the problem, but everyone is also looking at their own self-interest. And I think in the end this is a terrible thing for a pollster to say, but these problems are going to be solved in spite of public opinion, not in response to public opinion.

However, we're in the middle of an election and that's not really the issue, solving the problem, but the issue is the ways in which these candidates are being perceived on issues that are differentially important to various generations.

LYDEN: Well, let's look at the political parties a little bit. Hans says that he is likely to support Mitt Romney. You found that there were sharp divisions in the Republican Party over entitlements. Tell us more about that.

KOHUT: Well, what we see is that the Republicans have had a headlock on older voters in the last three elections. For example, a good example is in '08. Voters, overall, voted for Obama over McCain, 53 to 45, but among people who are 65 and older the margin was 53 percent McCain, 45 percent Obama.

And we saw, in 2010, seniors voting Republican in a very strong way. What our polling shows is the only issue in which the Democrats have any potential to best the Republicans in the minds of the older voters, is in dealing with Social Security and albeit probably Medicare as well, although we didn't test this.

So the reaction to the Ryan plan, if it becomes an issue in this debate, might well un-stick a few of those Republican senior votes, given the strength of concern about this issue and the strong opposition that we see among older people to making this kind of change to Medicare or comparable changes to Social Security.

LYDEN: Here's another Florida voter, Sequoia Finch. She's 53. She's also from Tallahassee and says she's voting for President Obama and she's talking about Medicare and Social Security.

SEQUOIA FINCH: I haven't educated myself enough, but I've just been hearing what the news has been reporting. So I'm totally against the shutdown of those two entities, because it impacts seniors and folks who are disadvantaged and I'm really for that population.

LYDEN: We were just wondering, you know, how are fears for those in their 50s different as opposed to those 65 and older?

KOHUT: They're less intense, and as Baby Boomer - as you get to the older edge of the Baby Boom generation, they begin to look more like the seniors - that is, the people born before 1946. But Baby Boomers are having a difficult time in this economy with jobs and they're thinking about their retirement years and the interviewee mentioned the shutdown of these programs.

Obviously, no one is proposing the shutdown of these programs, but just the way she mentioned it is some indication of the anxiety level among older people about the entitlement programs.

LYDEN: You know, we mentioned at the outset that concerns about preserving benefits actually outweigh reducing the deficit. We talked about older voters here, but this was for voters across the generations.

KOHUT: That's right. People of all ages are concerned about these programs. The concern is more intense and more politically salient among older people, but younger people, too, say let's find another way to deal with this deficit. And most often, the solutions that are called upon - or are popular, rather - are let's tax rich people. Now, obviously, taxing rich people to a greater extent may happen, but in the end, it's going to take more than that to deal with these problems.

LYDEN: So what do you mean when you say that the solution to this may not be something that gets solved, necessarily, politically?

KOHUT: Well, I - what I meant was, in the context of a political campaign, in the end, it's going to be a political solution. But I don't think it's going to be resolved between now and Election Day.

LYDEN: You know, Andy, when it comes to politics, you hear a lot about a generational split. But looking at your research, do you really think that there is one?

KOHUT: Oh, there is definitely a generational split. I'll read to you the results of the latest poll that we had, Romney versus Obama. Among 65 and olders, Romney led 52 to 43. Among 18 to 29s, Obama led 57 to 38. And in between those two extremes, the numbers reflect a generational - an upward generational support for Republicans.

LYDEN: And yet you found in that same research that it's younger voters who might think more about privatizing or - part of Medicare or Social Security later, what we might think of as a Republican position.

KOHUT: Right. But their issues with Obama and Romney are less focused on these entitlement concerns and more focused on other things.

LYDEN: Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center, and he joined us from the center in Washington, D.C. Always a pleasure to have you.

KOHUT: Delighted to be here.

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