How Obama Could Win Over Seniors
June 18, 2008
Conventional wisdom considers senior citizens to be prime McCain turf. After all, throughout the primaries Barack Obama has polled more strongly among younger voters. A recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll shows Obama leading McCain overall 49% to 45%. But he trailed by 22% among white seniors while he lead two to one among voters under 30. Senior voters are especially important to McCain in swing states with older populations like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, Iowa and Michigan.
McCain has to hang on to senior voters to have any shot at victory. But Obama can substantially increase his vote share among senior citizens, and if he succeeds, he can turn the November election into a Democratic landslide. Here's how he might do it:
Challenges To Be Overcome:
1). Unfamiliarity and Resistance to Change. The core message of the Obama campaign is change. The problem is that seniors as a group are more resistant to change than young people. McCain, on the other hand, is an "old comfortable shoe." The key to neutralizing this natural McCain advantage is to convince seniors that Obama wants "safe change" -- that he himself is "safe" and predictable. Three things are most important in making seniors feel "safe":
* Most importantly, Obama needs to convince seniors that he shares their values. This will play out especially in the areas of national security, race and economic security -- more on those later. But Obama's willingness to discuss values -- not just policies -- will be very important as well. His Father's Day sermon on the responsibilities of fathers is a good example. So is his frequent appeal to values like unity and hope.
* The more seniors know about his family and his history, the more they like him. Obama is a great father, with lovely children. That's a big deal to seniors. The more they get to know him personally on daytime talk shows, and through personal profiles and events in their communities, the more they will come to feel he is "safe."
* Endorsements by other seniors -- especially their neighbors. All people are pack animals, we want our friends and neighbors to approve of what we do and think. Senior celebrity endorsers can help. But if Democrats organize a major program where seniors communicate their support for Obama directly to other seniors, that more than anything else, will make them feel that Obama is "safe."
2). National Security. Like most Americans, seniors share the view that we need a new direction in our foreign policy, and they oppose the Iraq War. But polls show that many think McCain may be more trustworthy than Obama as a leader in world affairs. Just as importantly, seniors are the major audience for Republican attempts to make Obama look "unpatriotic." Three steps are most important here:
* Democrats should not attempt to "soften" their opposition to the Iraq War by trying to sound more like Republicans. We need to be clear that the Bush-McCain policies have failed precisely because they have made America less safe, weakened our military, strengthened our adversaries and isolated America in the world. Seniors fear that Obama might not be "strong" enough personally in dealing with world issues. He -- and Democrats generally -- need to show them that we are "strong" by standing up forcefully for our own view of the policy that can make us safer -- and that we are more patriotic in that regard than reckless right-wingers who have in fact made us less secure.
* The "cost of war" frame is particularly powerful with seniors. They agree strongly that it is outrageous that Bush and McCain have spent hundreds of billions on the War in Iraq, but can't find the money to pay for health care.
* While most Americans agree with Democrats on the policy in Iraq, they still believe by a slight margin that McCain is better equipped to deal with Iraq as president. Democrats need to repeatedly go right at McCain's competency and judgment when it comes to Iraq -- to remind them that his judgment about going to war in Iraq in the first place was wrong.
3). Racial Prejudice. The fact is that seniors grew up in a culture that left a higher percentage of racial prejudice -- and racism -- among seniors than the general population. Obama can, in fact, attract votes from seniors that are prejudiced. He won't attract votes from seniors who are racists.
When you have negative stereotypes about another race, that's racial prejudice. Unfortunately, America is full of those stereotypes. But stereotypes can be overcome by actually getting to know a specific person, like Barack Obama.
Racism, as distinct from racial prejudice, is a different matter. Racism involves defining your identity -- your meaning -- in contrast to someone else's race. Of course, race is a characteristic that defines many, if not most, people's concept of their own identity and meaning. That is not necessarily racism. Someone who thinks of herself as a Jew or an Italian, or African American or Hispanic is not being "racist." Racial identity -- and racial pride -- are healthy, positive portions of most people's sense of themselves.
Racism does not involve the definition of your identity in terms of what you are, but rather in terms of what you're not. A racist derives his sense of self-worth from the fact that he is not black. That's why racists are "haters." And that's why they are often so passionate about their hatred. Their view of people of other races goes right to their own definition of who they are as a person. That's why the notion of social equality, and especially subordination to the other group, is so terrifying to a racist. To a racist, the idea of working for a black boss or following a black leader, negates his view of his own self-worth. Obviously, a racist would never dream of voting for a black president. Someone who is simply prejudiced, might. Most seniors are not racists, even if many are prejudiced. Once again, personal familiarity is the key.
Advantages to Be Driven Home:
1). Seniors Strongly Oppose McCain's Positions on the Issues Seniors Care Most About -- Social Security and Health Care.
* McCain supports Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. For McCain, Social Security privatization is political kryptonite. The battle to defeat Bush's risky privatization plan was the watershed that turned the political tide against the Republicans in 2005. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security was horribly unpopular among seniors. Seniors particularly objected because it would have reduced guaranteed Social Security benefits, and endangered the long term stability of the Social Security Trust Fund by diverting trillions of dollars that would otherwise be used to pay guaranteed benefits. More than anyone else, seniors understood the importance of guaranteed benefits and wanted to protect the principle underlying Social Security since its inception: that we're all in this together, not all in this alone.
Finally, privatization would only worsen the already-floundering Bush economy by putting a huge new tax burden on Americans by requiring massive new borrowing and debt.
McCain supported the Bush plan in 2005, and he continues to support the diversion of Social Security taxes into private accounts. His own polling apparently shows his political vulnerability on the issue. Last week he tried to argue that he was not for "privatizing Social Security," just for creating "personal accounts." That is the same word game that Bush tried in 2005; it didn't work then and it won't work now. Diverting money from the Social Security Trust Fund into "private accounts" is privatization -- it's that simple.
Obama firmly opposes Social Security privatization and has proposed increasing social security taxes only on families earning $250,000 or more per year -- a move that would guarantee the solvency of Social Security for generations.
* McCain supported attempts to privatize Medicare, and he opposes a Universal Health Plan that would cut prescription drug costs. Seniors care more than younger Americans about health care. McCain backed the Medicare drug plan called Medicare Part D that is deeply flawed and does nothing to control costs of pharmaceuticals that is one of the top issues for seniors. His health insurance proposal would undermine the employer-provided health care plans upon which many seniors depend for supplemental coverage, and he would do nothing to control health insurance or pharmaceutical costs in the future.
In fact, McCain's campaign is supported and run by lobbyists for the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
2). McCain's Age Might Actually Work Against Him with Seniors.At first glance, you might think that older people would be more prone to vote for an older candidate. But that is not always true. Bob Dole, who was 73 when he got the Republican nomination, found that older voters were his toughest sell on the issue of age. The New York Times reports that "in polling and interviews, these voters often pointed to their own daily experiences -- for instance, the struggle to balance a checkbook -- when they explained why they would be reluctant to support him."
The more seniors know about Obama the more they support him. But McCain's support shrinks the more they know about his positions -- especially on health care and Social Security. Barack Obama has an opportunity to both neutralize McCain's current advantages, and to capitalize on his enormous vulnerabilities. If he can succeed, the election could be a rout.
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Robert Creamer has been a political organizer and strategist for almost four decades. He and his firm, the Strategic Consulting Group, work with many of the countryâ€™s most significant issue campaigns. His new book is "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win."