In the Nov. 2 midterm elections, more than two-thirds of voters will be 45 or older if current voting trends continue, according to a new AARP report. That adds up to a lot of clout in deciding which candidates will be in Congress come January.
And in a recent survey of AARP members identified as likely voters, nearly two-thirds (61%) say the country is on the wrong track. Their concerns center on five main issues: the economy, Social Security, the deficit, Medicare fraud and maintaining access to doctors.
"All of these issues are related to economic security,"says Gary Ferguson, senior vice president of American Viewpoint Inc., which conducted the survey. "Regardless of partisan leanings, AARP members share a common outlook on the important policy questions tested in this survey."
Here's what surveyed AARP members think about the issues and some key races where they're in play:
Remember "it's the economy, stupid," the mantra that won Bill Clinton the White House in 1992? History is repeating itself. "Even though there were a relatively few people on Wall Street who caused" the recession, says John Rother, AARP's executive vice president for policy, "its impact is touching nearly everyone."
With 9.6 percent unemployment, a big hit to retirement savings and sinking housing prices, it's little wonder that 82 percent of members surveyed are dissatisfied with the state of the economy. But surprisingly, the vast majority (70%) is at least somewhat satisfied with their personal financial situation. Nearly two-thirds (64%) believe their financial situation will stay about the same in the coming year.
Why the discrepancy between their personal pocketbooks and the broader economy? "People are concerned about what the future might bring even though they're comfortable today," Rother says. "They're thinking about their family, their friends, their neighbors."
Where it's in play Though the economy is top-of-mind, it's not always tip-of-tongue for political candidates. "Many people running for office would prefer not to talk about the difficult tradeoffs that probably lie ahead," Rother says. "As a result many races are focusing on local issues and personalities and not necessarily [on] economic policy."
Among the exceptions:
• Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently said she was "focused like a laser beam on jobs." In ads, she has attacked her Republican opponent, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, for outsourcing thousands of jobs while at HP. Fiorina has called Boxer a hypocrite for taking campaign contributions from businesses that outsourced jobs.
• In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, recently clashed over the economy during the sole debate of their tight battle. Claiming that federal tax policies saved tens of thousands of jobs in the state, Reid said, "My job … is to create jobs." Angle responded, "Harry Reid, it's not your job to create jobs. It's your job to create confidence to get the private sector to create jobs."
The basic equation for Social Security has remained the same for 75 years: working Americans pay into the system in return for a monthly payout when they retire. The Social Security Administration says it can deliver full benefits through 2036 but announced on Oct. 15 that recipients will go without a cost-of-living increase in 2011 for the second year in a row. And with 80 million boomers beginning to age into the system, politicians must grapple with how to keep Social Security solvent.
Two-thirds of survey respondents believe they will receive the entitlement throughout their retirement, while 29 percent lack such confidence. But nearly all (97%) say it is vital that Social Security remain available for succeeding generations. And 95% say it's important that a candidate in this election pledge to ensure that Social Security remains a guaranteed benefit.
Where it's in play
• Social Security continues to be a major point of contention in the Reid-Angle race. In their debate, Reid said, "Don't frighten people about Social Security … the money is there and it's holding strong. It's taking care of our folks, and it will for the next 35 years." Angle responded, "Man up, Harry Reid. You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security." Reid attacked Angle last summer when she announced her goal to phase out Social Security, replacing it with a privatized program like Chile's. More recently Angle said she wouldn't eliminate the program but instead would let young workers opt out and open up personal retirement accounts.
• In Kentucky's closely watched Senate race, Republican candidate Rand Paul has suggested that the Social Security retirement age might have to be raised. In a recent debate on Fox News, Paul said his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, failed to mention that he publicly considered the same fix in 2002.
• In Alaska's three-way Senate race, each candidate believes Social Security needs to be changed. Democrat Scott McAdams would raise Social Security taxes on the country's highest earners, but has signed a pledge to fight benefit cuts or privatization. Republican Joe Miller favors privatizing the program. Write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent, expects the retirement age will probably have to be raised.
• Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) has run TV ads saying that his Republican opponent, Ken Buck, wants to privatize Social Security, an accusation Buck denied in a recent debate. He said he would redesign the program so that younger workers would have the option of investing in separate retirement accounts.
With record-setting budget deficits the last two years, the issue can be divided into two parts: who's to blame and how to fix it.
Republicans nationwide say President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package passed in 2009 made the deficit skyrocket without producing enough jobs in return; Democrats blame the Bush administration's tax cuts for the gap between spending and revenue. Republicans now want to extend the cuts for everyone, regardless of income, while most Democrats would cap the tax cuts at families that earn a maximum of $250,000 and individuals who earn no more than $200,000.
However the country got here, 91 percent of AARP survey respondents expressed their concern over the towering deficit. Even among Democrats, 85 percent are worried over the issue.
"The fact of deficits at the federal and state levels is likely to mean pretty major cuts in terms of assistance," says Rother. "More and more states are debating what could be pretty dramatic cutbacks that could affect a lot of seniors."
Despite their unease, however, survey respondents are clear on how not to fix the deficit. Two of out three members interviewed reject the idea of controlling the deficit by reducing Social Security benefits for future retirees, an idea being floated by President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission. Only one in four (24%) say there's no way to bring down the deficit without cutting Social Security benefits for subsequent retirees.
Where it's in play
• In Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray (D) is trying to defend her seat against Republican Dino Rossi, a Rossi ad says, "Patty Murray is in the other Washington voting with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid for the Wall Street bailout, the $1.2 trillion jobless stimulus." Murray has said that Rossi and Republicans are not being straightforward by talking about reducing the deficit at the same time they're pushing to extend the tax cuts to everyone regardless of income. "Republicans can't have it both ways," she has said.
• In Colorado, Buck says he wouldn't have voted for the stimulus bill, noting that unemployment has risen beyond the 8 percent "we were promised." Bennet defends the stimulus bill, saying that the recession was worse than we knew.
Budget issues also dominate the majority of the nation's 37 gubernatorial races, including in Maryland, where Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley is facing off against Bob Ehrlich, the Republican governor he ousted four years ago. Ehrlich accuses O'Malley of "spending at unsustainable levels and mortgaging our future." O'Malley's countercharge: "Over his four-year term, Bob Ehrlich increased state spending by more than any other governor in Maryland history."
Medicare fraud — in the form of identity theft, scams, kickbacks and false claims — costs taxpayers billions of dollars. In fact, 44 members of an Armenian-American crime syndicate were arrested recently for bilking the government out of $100 million in treatments that never occurred. It's the largest Medicare fraud operation by a single group resulting in criminal charges.
AARP survey respondents are wise to the problem: more than seven in 10 (72%) polled view Medicare fraud as a major problem, and 70 percent are likely to vote for candidates who support legislative proposals to rein in fraud. Among their reasons to crack down: keeping Medicare financially strong (51%), helping save consumers money (17%), protecting seniors' health (13%) and reducing the deficit (9%).
Where it's in play In Florida's gubernatorial race, a two-minute ad aired by Democrat Alex Sink attacks her Republican opponent, Rick Scott, for a Medicare fraud billing scheme that occurred at his hospital company in the 1990s. Scott, then CEO, was never charged with a crime. The company paid $1.7 billion to settle the criminal charges.
Access to Doctors
Current law requires that doctors who treat Medicare patients take a reduction in reimbursement rates every year as a way of curbing the growth of Medicare spending. While Congress has blocked the cuts up to now, lawmakers haven't come up with a permanent fix.
This means that doctors are scheduled to receive a 23 percent cut in reimbursement rates as of Dec. 1, 2010, leaving 86 percent of AARP survey respondents concerned that their access to doctors will be limited. And fully 81 percent of people interviewed are concerned that their doctors will stop accepting Medicare. These members are putting their ballot where their worry is: 59 percent are more likely to vote for a candidate who promises to prevent future Medicare reimbursement cuts to doctors.