Senior Voters as Women

Women’s issues may be an increasingly important factor in determining which politicians appeal to senior citizens

My maternal grandmother was the pluperfect Pittsburgh Republican. She believed in God (quietly), small government, thrift, self-sufficiency and Mellon Bank, where she worked for 35 years. If further GOP cred were needed, she had it from her cousin being Senator John Heinz. But then J. Danforth Quayle came unbidden into her political life.

When Quayle asserted that a pregnant little girl who was raped by her father should not be allowed to have an abortion, my grandmother didn’t exactly “go apes**t”, because the strongest curse word that gentle and dignified woman ever uttered was “pshaw”. But the incident had a profound effect, leading her to turn her back on George H.W. Bush even though he nearly perfectly mirrored her political views. President Bush had chosen “that horrible man” to be the vice-president of her country and that was not in her eyes forgivable.

My grandmother would not have used the term but she was a feminist of her generation, believing that there should be no infringements on women’s decisions about career, marriage, divorce, sex and childbearing. Such sentiments only become more prevalent in subsequent generations of American women.

I suspect that changes in attitudes among and about women are not being weighed sufficiently in analyses of senior citizens’ voting patterns, which tend to lump all seniors together, for example by assuming that the elderly’s only political interests are Social Security and Medicare. Senior citizens comprise a higher proportion of women than any other age group, and female senior citizens vote at higher rates than any other demographic group. It therefore seems plausible that as feminist attitudes have become broadly accepted among older women (even if they do not call themselves feminists) this may introduce new dynamics into voting patterns among the elderly, particularly as a number of male politicians seem to have a hard time shutting up about “legitimate rape”, divinely intended pregnancy from rape and mandatory vaginal ultrasounds.

There is No Such Thing as “the” Senior Vote

Political prognosticators tend to think of “the” senior vote as less diverse than it really is

Charlie Cook and Erica Seifert‘s analyses of senior citizens’ voting intentions have drawn a significant amount of attention (See Kevin Drum’s take here, Ed Kilgore’s here). While not uninformative, such analyses may rest on the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as “the” senior vote. When senior citizens were a small part of the population, it might not have mattered in predicting electoral outcomes that their voting intentions were discussed as a lump. But with the senior population at over forty million and growing rapidly, underestimating its diversity could lead to serious political forecasting errors.

The current senior population includes veterans of World War II and veterans of the Viet Nam War; African-Americans whose adult life was lived entirely after the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights Acts, as well as many who lived for decades under Jim Crow; women who made decisions about marriage and career prior to the founding of NOW and women who made them afterwards; people who liked Ike and people who were too young to vote for him. Those people just turning 65 thus see many political issues differently than do those oldsters who are 75 or 85.

In analyzing the youth vote, political prognosticators focus on a narrower 11-year birth cohort (i.e., people age 18-29). Yet when they analyze seniors, they treat anyone from age 65 to 105 as an undifferentiated mass. As the country’s grey ranks continue to swell in the coming years, this oversight will become ever more problematic for electoral forecasting efforts.