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Election 2012: Battleground Report

50-Plus Voters and the Social Safety Net

Floridians express their hopes and concerns about the future of Medicare and Social Security

"They're wonderful," said José Gaztambide, 70, of his government retirement programs. Still, the Winter Garden resident added, "the government, like a family, needs to spend less money." With one in five Floridians receiving Social Security, and 18 percent getting Medicare, Social Security can be a potent political issue. Former President Bill Clinton managed to knock off primary foe Paul Tsongas in Florida in 1992 largely by unearthing one line in a Tsongas policy paper that suggested the cost-of-living increases for Social Security should be revisited.

The issues are already a big topic, especially since the two candidates offer divergent approaches. Mitt Romney has proposed raising the eligibility age for both programs, imposing a means test for Social Security, and giving Medicare-eligible Americans the option of buying private insurance with government support. (The proposed Medicare changes would not take place until 2022.) President Obama has vehemently opposed any private alternative to Medicare. The new health care law cut some $500 billion from the growth of Medicare Advantage spending, with the cuts hitting providers but not benefits. On Social Security, Obama opposes any plans to partially privatize the program.

Obama won Florida in 2008 but trailed in exit polls among voters 65 and older, who constitute 17.7 percent of the electorate. Polling shows Obama still lagging behind Romney in that age group. And the question of what to do with beloved — and expensive — benefit programs could determine the election. "Argh!" Sigrid Swick exclaimed as she wandered a Kissimmee community health fair, shaking her head in a vehement no when asked if either program should be partly or fully privatized. She's an "Obama Mama," Swick said, and will vote for the president.

Tammi Madison, meanwhile, is leaning toward Romney and takes a skeptical view of the future funding of Social Security and Medicare. "I'm not going to count on it," said Madison, who works for a designer handbag company. "My plans are really different from what my parents had planned."

The votes Swick, Madison and other Floridians cast will affect not just the election, but also the future of Social Security and Medicare.

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