AUGUSTA, Maine — Gray is the hot color in Maine’s political ads this year.
A couple married for 51 years explains why they support same-sex marriage. Two older women sit at a kitchen table discussing U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s vehicle. Actor Sam Waterston, 71, asks Maine voters to support his friend, U.S. Senate candidate Angus King.
This year’s candidates for major offices, and both sides of the Question 1 same-sex marriage debate, have salt-and-peppered their ads with messages delivered by and directed at seasoned voters.
That’s understandable. Maine has the nation’s oldest median age at 42.7 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports that voting and registration rates tend to increase with age.
“You see it in the ads for marriage equality, which feature parents and grandparents,” said Dan Demeritt, a Maine political consultant and former communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. “It’s very savvy to explain the issue through that set of eyes. It creates a bond with older voters.”
Those bonds are designed to pay off with election victories.
In the 2010 elections, 68 percent of Mainers between 45 and 64 years old and 76 percent of Mainers between 65 and 74 reported voting, according to the Census Bureau.
After high turnouts among 18- to 24-year-old voters for the 2008 presidential election, the percentage of younger Americans who cast ballots in 2010 declined markedly.
Only 31 percent of Maine residents between 18 and 24 years old reported voting in 2010. “In the United States in 2010, only 21 percent of 18-to 24-year old citizens voted, compared with 61 percent of those 65 and older,” the Census Bureau reports.
Dating back to a November 2011 Pew Research Center study, polls indicate that election participation among voters younger than 30 will likely remain lukewarm this year. The same Pew survey found much higher engagement among voters age 50 and older.
Given that voter turnout is consistently higher among older Americans and that demographics show them becoming an increasingly larger percentage of the population, especially in Maine, voters age 50 and older wield more power in determining Election Day results. But do older voters share common traits that campaigns can tap as a strategy?
Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, says they do in this year’s presidential election, but with a major caveat.
“In 2012, age is a significant correlate of voting behavior — as has been well established in previous elections — but basically only among non-Hispanic white voters,” Newport wrote in an analysis of a national survey of voter preferences by race and age. “Nonwhite voters are so strong in their support for Obama that age makes little difference.”
Taking a longer view, researchers James H. Schultz and Robert H. Binstock argue that exit polls historically debunk the notion of a unified “senior vote.” They assert that “evidence often contradicts the assumption … that political attitudes and behavior of older people are predominantly shaped by common self-interests that derive from the attribute of old age.”
Schultz and Binstock found no credible reason why people who adhered to different political ideologies when they were younger “would suddenly become homogenized in self-interests and political behavior when [they reach] the old-age category.”
Nevertheless, the notion persists that voters become more conservative as they grow older.
“It’s definitely part of the urban myth of politics,” said Demeritt. “I think there’s something to it in terms of older voters, especially those on fixed incomes, being concerned about pocketbook matters like Medicare, retirement security and property tax inflation. But I believe voters are less likely to change their views on social issues as they get older.”
Binstock cites information that shows an increase between 1968 and 1996 in the number of baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — who identified themselves as Republicans as they grew older. However, the percentage of Democrats held steady, with most of the shift coming from independents, leading Binstock and other researchers to reject the premise that aging results in a more conservative voting pattern.
Instead, events earlier in a person’s lifetime shape his or her voting philosophy, Hana Shepherd suggests in “ Old=conservative, young=liberal, Age, Generation and Voting Patterns,” at the Sociology Lens website.
“There is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age,” Shepherd writes. “People who grew up during a certain period (e.g. during the Depression and World War II) are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a different period (e.g. post-World War II affluence).”
Regardless of when their political ideology formed, conservative older voters are mobilized and “very aggressive,” said John White, executive director of the National Association of Conservative Seniors, a new group that started signing up members on Oct. 2. White expects the organization, which bills itself as a conservative alternative to AARP, to enlist 3 million to 4 million members by the end of 2012. He did not have membership figures from Maine, but said most enrollees come from Southern states.
White said about 25 percent of those who sign up cite politics as the main reason. “They watch Fox News, and they’re mad about Obamacare, gun control, immigration and the estate tax,” he said. “We’re making a solid stance on conservative values, family, government, church and the military.”
Worries about the future of Medicare and Social Security do unite older voters across political spectrums, although they differ on how to address those concerns. White and Lori Parham, state director for AARP Maine, agree that voters who spent a lifetime supporting opposing political parties would coalesce if they perceive an unfair assault on retirement benefits.
That powerful voting bloc would extend beyond recipients of Social Security and Medicare.
“Often people assume that folks concerned about Social Security and Medicare are people on the programs themselves, but polling we did this summer shows that people between 50 and 64 are realizing more and more how important those programs are,” Parham said Thursday.
AARP on Tuesday released results of its “Mainers Have Their Say About Medicare and Social Security” survey. It showed that 94 percent of Maine residents age 65 and older received Social Security in 2011. The average annual benefit was $13,100, and Social Security accounted for 64 percent of the typical older Mainer’s income.
For those people, political conversations about the economy begin and end with protecting federal assistance programs into which they paid prior to retirement and which keep them out of poverty now.
“Many are quite vulnerable,” Parham said. “Energy and food assistance will be critical for this age group. Maine ranks first in New England in food insecurity. Many older people in state are going hungry. It’s a silent epidemic.”
A major frustration among older voters, Parham said, is that they don’t believe they have a voice in the political conversation. At many of the 90 forums AARP hosted throughout Maine this year, those who attended complained that they couldn’t get good information from the candidates and that their voices weren’t being heard.
“We know the issue of jobs is very important to voters age 50-plus, but any meaningful discussion of the economy and this year’s election has to include the future of Social Security and Medicare,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP vice president, said in a release.
That’s why national campaigns regularly slip “Social Security scare tactics” into their messages, Demeritt said. It’s why Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers links his call to cut wasteful spending with protecting Medicare and Social Security and why Democrats try to frighten seniors into believing that a Republican Congress would carve up the safety net, he said.
As significant as older voters will be in this year’s election, their impact will increase in two years, Demeritt said, because turnout among younger voters traditionally plummets in off-year elections while older voters hold steady.
“Older voters get out in every cycle,” he said. “That’s a bloc. Anything that matters to those voters, as a political operative, is something I would tap into.”
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.