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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “There is No Such Thing as “the” Senior Vote”

  1. Disaggregation is a mixed bag. Whether you want to do it depends on the topic. If you’re trying to find out who is going to win an election in Miami, it is good to know that the “senior vote” consists of liberal Jews. If you are looking at trends in Presidential elections, this datum is a trivium–the kind of distraction that fuels bad horse-race coverage.

  2. So is this a case of KH yelling, “Hey kid, get off of my lawn – you’re aggregating me!”

  3. If you disaggregate views,you’re also going to have to track voting propensity by age. Which might or might not be a good thing, considering the solidity of the “seniors vote” myth. Maybe there’s support for throwing great-grandma under the bus…

  4. The social experiences of a 66 year old and a 96 year old have differed but they may have the same views on Social Security and Medicare.

  5. These labels are clearly shorthands, and should of course be recognized as such — but their use is inevitable. If the 40-60 age cohort differs by, say, 20 percentage points from the 60-80 cohort on an issue, that is a huge discrepancy that any analyst or campaign strategist needs to look at very carefully. That is true even though 40 percent of those groups are on the “wrong” side of their age-group stereotype, and even though subcategories may well be where the real critical distinctions lie.

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