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Debates Skirt Top Issues on Minds of Many Voters 50+

Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs remain key voting concerns

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate

Scott Olson/Getty Images

En español | As voters 50-plus join millions of Americans who have already started to cast ballots for president, Congress and local officials, many have to dig deep to find out how the candidates stand on some key issues.

In fact, Medicare, Social Security, caregiving and nursing home safety were not raised in either the first presidential debate or the vice-presidential debate. A second presidential face-off had been scheduled for Oct. 15, but the Commission on Presidential Debates canceled the event in the aftermath of President Donald Trump testing positive for the coronavirus. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are currently still scheduled to debate on Oct. 22.

Where AARP stands on the issues

Social Security

• Medicare

• Prescription drugs

• Long-term care

• The economy

"We tend to vote on what impacts us — and what impacts us is Medicare and Social Security,” says Jean Nofles, 78, of Denver. “I don't think they were really a priority in either of the debates."

Nofles, a retired federal employee who worked for the agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid, says she and her friends are very concerned about what might happen to these vital programs.

"Social Security is a right, something that we have earned, and I hate to see it played with,” Nofles says. She is worried about the possibility that the government could reduce the level of Social Security benefits or raise the eligibility age “again.” (Legislation passed in 1983 set in motion a gradual rise in the age to become eligible to collect full benefits from the original 65 to 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.)

Missed opportunities

Historically, Americans over 50 have higher voter turnout rates than any other age group. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, 71 percent of Americans over 65 voted, compared with 46 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Both Trump and Biden missed an opportunity by not bringing up the 50-plus issues “given that there were 80 million people watching these debates and many watching were seniors — who vote,” says John Hishta, AARP senior vice president for campaigns. Not raising these issues “is a disservice to our members and voters over the age of 50 who count on these programs for their lives,” Histha adds.

Lee Baker, a financial planner who lives in suburban Atlanta, believes the crises that have dominated the public discourse in 2020 — from nationwide protests to the coronavirus pandemic — have crowded out the traditional topics that candidates address when they talk with older Americans.

Lee Baker

Courtesy Lee Baker

Lee Baker, 52, of Tucker, Georgia.

"I think all the other stuff happening this year has taken a front seat,” says Baker, 52, who spoke with AARP as he waited in a long line to cast his ballot on the first day of Georgia's early voting. Baker says voters are having to find other ways to learn where candidates stand on the issues most important to them. While the debates were silent on 50-plus issues, both campaigns have promised, in paid advertising, to protect Social Security and Medicare.

Baker and other voters 50-plus interviewed by AARP say they have turned to alternate sources to get information about where the candidates stand on the issues they care about — including the interviews the AARP Bulletin conducted with Trump and Biden. AARP's questions for the two candidates focused on Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, nursing home safety and caregiving.

Taken for granted

Cheryl Jefferson says she closely watched both debates and was very concerned that those issues were never brought up.

"The 50-plus community needs to know that their Social Security is going to be intact, that their Medicare is going to continue, and that prescription drug costs are going to be reduced,” says Jefferson, a 67-year-old retired mortgage banker from Jacksonville, Florida.

Inattention to issues important to older Americans makes some voters over 50 worry that such an attitude will carry over to how politicians govern.

Mary Roberge

Courtesy Mary Roberge

Mary Roberge, 73, of Manchester, New Hampshire.

"If they are not thinking about these issues now or mentioning it during the election, when somebody is elected will these be issues of concern for them to work on?” asks Mary Roberge, 73, of Manchester, New Hampshire. Roberge, who is a semiretired Medicare benefit specialist for a nonprofit group that helps people with brain injuries and developmental disabilities, says she hates to say it but believes the candidates may be taking older voters for granted.

Fellow New Hampshire resident Patrick McDermott says ignoring 50-plus issues hasn't been confined to the presidential and vice-presidential debates. A face-off last week between two congressional candidates, McDermott says, failed to raise any issues important to Americans over age 50, despite the fact that he and others submitted questions ahead of time on Social Security, Medicare, long-term health care and prescription drugs. They weren't mentioned either during questions or the candidates’ statements.

"It is discouraging,” says McDermott, 66, a retired economic development and community relations specialist. “We're facing unprecedented issues and problems. Not addressing them now will make things worse going forward."

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