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The Ryan Plan to Lose the Senior Vote

David Callahan

As grim as the GOP's long term prospects are demographically, things could still get worse. Like, for instance, Republicans could alienate the one last slice of the population that remains firmly in their camp: old people. 

A big reason that President Obama didn't achieve a landslide in 2012 was because Mitt Romney won voters age 65 and over -- who made up 16 percent of the electorate -- by a resounding 12 points. Romney won whites in this category by 21 points. Seniors voted by an even larger margin for Republicans in the all-important 2010 mid-term elections, which gave the GOP control of the House -- and gave Paul Ryan a national platform as House Budget Committee Chair.

Don't be fooled by these big margins into thinking that seniors naturally, and overwhelmingly, line up behind the GOP. George W. Bush won the senior vote by just 5 points in 2004 in an election where he did substantially better overall than Romney. 

Rather, the GOP's big margins among seniors lately have a lot to do with the politics of race and backlash. Many older voters simply aren't comfortable with a young black president and also tend to be more conservative. 

Subtract the race factor, though, and the GOP's hold on older voters becomes much less of a sure thing. Imagine, for example, that Democrats run a white candidate in 2016 who is a senior citizen herself -- Hillary Clinton. Poof, there goes the GOP's big edge with seniors. 

All this leads, of course, to the topic of the Ryan budget -- and its frontal attack on Medicare, a program that may be even beloved by seniors than Social Security. 

Under Ryan's plan, Medicare is not downsized into a voucher program that leaves seniors with much bigger healthcare tabs until 2024. Seniors who are now 55 and over would not see their benefits changed.

Politics is the only conceivable reason for sparing Medicare the ax for so long. While today's lawmakers could never be convinced to inflict that kind of pain on seniors right now, voting for pain that takes effect in a decade is a lot more palatable. Or so goes the logic. 

Of course, though, anyone who is in their early 50s is already thinking about retirement security and the prospect of paying more for healthcare has got to be unnerving. More to the point, at least politically, today's younger boomers will eventually make up the largest cohort of senior Americans this nation has ever seen. While seniors were 16 percent of the electorate in 2012, they'll probably be more like 20 percent of the electorate in 2020 -- and an even bigger share in 2024, when Ryan's plan is slated to take effect.

How are younger boomers going to feel about the GOP when they get to their golden years only to find that the Medicare ladder has been pulled up behind the older boomers, leaving murderous out-of-pocket healthcare costs for a group that has saved far less for retirement that today's seniors did? They will be angry, I'd guess. And this huge bloc of voters will be angry at the same time that key red states, including Texas and Georgia, have turned purple blue thanks to the increasing Latino population. 

Now, don't get me wrong, I believe that politicians should propose bold reforms even in the face of long electoral odds. In this case, though, you have to wonder whether House Republicans are part of some kind of GOP suicide cult. The party that just lost the Latino vote by 40 points, the female vote by 11 points, and the young adult vote by 23 points is now focused on alienating the only real friends it has left in the electorate.