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Seniors, the Prescription Drug Benefit and the 2006 Election

by Ruy Teixeira

More polling data are accumulating on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and they continue to indicate that the new benefit is likely to be a political liability for the GOP in 2006.

Consider these data from the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

1. Overall, just 20 percent say they know “a great deal” (6 percent) or “a fair amount” (14 percent) about the Medicare prescription benefit and only 19 percent say they are favorable to the new benefit, compared to 25 percent who are unfavorable and 55 percent who “don’t know enough about it to have an opinion”. Seniors are more likely to say they are knowledgeable about the benefit, but they are also more likely to say they are unfavorable (40 percent, compared to 23 percent favorable).

2. By an overwhelming 73 percent to 15 percent, seniors agree that the new drug benefit is “too complicated and confusing”.

3. By 51-27, seniors say it’s a good plan for seniors who don’t have drug coverage, but, by 67-14, they don’t believe the “plan will be helpful to me personally”.

These results suggest that the drug benefit is probably pushing seniors farther away from the GOP than they were already, which could have big electoral implications. That argument is explicitly by John Harwood in a Wall Street Journal article based on the new poll:

...In a period of broad-ranging public discontent, that among senior citizens stands out as most worrisome for Republicans aiming to keep control of the House and Senate in the fall.

"They're a pretty cranked up bunch and they've got to be handled with enormous care by incumbents," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the Journal/NBC survey. So far, adds his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart, "the Bush administration has done more to alienate them than to gain their support."

The results can be seen in Americans' attitudes toward Congress 11 months before Election Day 2006. By a 65%-19% margin, Americans age 65 and above disapprove of the performance of Congress; those under 65 are also negative but less lopsidedly, 58%-27%. Moreover, senior citizens say by 47%-37% that they want Democrats rather than Republicans to win control of Capitol Hill. Those under 65 prefer a Democratic victory by a narrower 45%-39% margin.

That disparity, like some other political differences between older and younger Americans, is relatively slight. But it has big implications for the 2006 campaign for two reasons.

One is that older voters, having given Mr. Bush slightly greater support than younger voters in his narrow 2004 re-election victory, have now become the most critical of his job performance. In the Journal/NBC poll, for instance, Americans under 65 disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance by a margin of 16 percentage points, while those 65 and above disapprove by a margin of 20 percentage points.

The second is that older voters play an outsize role in midterm contests, because they traditionally turn out at higher rates while many young voters tune out campaigns not featuring a presidential contest. Voters older than 60 made up 24% of those voting in 2004, but a larger 28% in the 1998 midterm contest, the last such campaign for which exit-poll data are available.

Actually, I have the national exit poll data from 2002, which were finally cleaned up and allowed limited release. These data indicate that the proportion of voters 60 and over in 2002 was 27 percent, a figure very close to the 1998 figure. So, not only are 2006 seniors likely to be a relatively poor age group from the GOP (as opposed to 2004, when they were the best), they are also likely, based on recent history, to be a relatively high proportion of 2006 voters, compared to 2004.