These are the trends to watch for among older voters in the Pa. primary | Ray E. Landis

With critical gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, the nation’s eyes will be on Pennsylvania

May 8, 2022 6:30 am

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Pennsylvania’s primary election day is on the horizon and candidates are making their last-minute pitches to voters. But today’s attack ads and mailings are likely to seem tame compared to what will take place this fall, and older voters are likely to be the target of many these efforts.

Conventional wisdom dictates voters over the age of 65 have an outsized influence in determining the outcome of elections in the United States. Statistics from the Census Bureau show this age group has the highest percentage of registered voters as well as the highest turnout percentage of all Americans.

The perception of the importance of older voters is not confined to the United States. The Economist recently published a column discussing how older voters were the key constituency enabling Emmanuel Macron to advance to the final round of the recent French presidential election, where he defeated the right-wing authoritarian Marine LePen.

As The Economist column points out, older voters in France ensured Macron’s survival in the first round of voting for the presidency. The French system features two separate elections when choosing a president – the first with multiple candidates from numerous places on the political spectrum and the second a run-off between the two candidates who received the most votes in the first round.

Without the votes of older people, Macron would have finished third in the first round of voting, behind LePen and a candidate of the far left. A Harris survey of second round voters then showed Macron capturing 72 percent of the 65+ vote in the one-on-one contest with LePen.

But a Pew Research study shows older voters have a different political orientation in America. A slight majority (52 percent- 48 percent) of U.S. voters aged 65 and older favored the right-wing authoritarian candidate (Donald Trump) in 2020. Voters aged  75 and older, who favored Trump 58 percent-42 percent, tipped the balance among this 65+ age group.

Is the attitude of older voters that much different in France than in the United States? Did the result of the 2020 presidential election turn the conventional wisdom about the importance of older voters on its head? And what does this mean for Pennsylvania in November of 2022?

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The French electoral system presents a contrast with the United States, where political extremes are shoved into one of the two political parties. Our primary election system, particularly the closed primaries which exist in Pennsylvania, has fueled extremist candidates and diminished opportunities for more moderate politicians to appear on the general election ballot, especially in the Republican Party.

Older voters in France also have a different perspective of the role of government and the impact of extremists than those of a similar age in the United States. The French know first-hand the devastation caused by authoritarian movements. They also know the positive impact of the state and appreciate universal access to health care and higher education. They are more apt to vote for leaders who promise to maintain the status quo.

The same generation of voters in United States did not live through a period of recovery and the reliance on government programs that characterized post-war Europe. As a result, many of the economically privileged in this age group tend to focus on perceived cultural issues.

Wealthy Republican operatives have exploited this situation. Their inflammatory rhetoric on issues such as gun ownership and election integrity (unheard of concerns in Western Europe) have helped to push many “patriotic” voters born before the end of the baby boom generation in 1965 to support Republican candidates.

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With the population graying and the percentage of voters collecting Social Security who support Republicans remaining steady, how did Joe Biden win in 2020? A look behind the numbers in the Pew study shows a generational shift is taking place within the older population.

In 2020 the percentage of voters born before 1965 dropped below 50 percent for the first time in American history. As a result, it was voters born in 1965 and later who swung the election to Biden.

Will Republicans rebound in 2022? With critical gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, the nation’s eyes will be on Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth has a higher proportion of older citizens than most states, and the population born before 1965 can be expected to turn out to vote in large numbers and support Republican candidates by roughly the same margins as in the past few elections.

This means It is likely that turnout of post-Boomer voters may determine the future direction of Pennsylvania. Until last week the disappointment of failed initiatives from the Biden administration seemed destined to discourage many of these voters from going to the polls in November as they did in 2020.

But an issue which motivates this generation has suddenly emerged. Anger emanating from the pending Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade may motivate this group to vote in large numbers in the fall.

If this proves to be true, Republicans who dreamed of a march to power in 2022 may find themselves foiled by their own exploitation of the culture wars.

Pennsylvanians will be spared an attempt by the extreme right to ban abortion and enact undemocratic measures to perpetuate their rule. And the idea that older voters are the deciding factor in American elections will suffer another setback.

Ray Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.