Are Presidential Candidates Even Thinking About Aging?

We soon will conduct the first U.S. presidential election in which both major-party candidates for President are older than age 70. Whoever is sworn in on January 20, 2021 will be our oldest President. With that in mind, are the candidates thinking about aging issues? The answer is a qualified yes—especially depending upon how broadly one construes “aging issues.”

Why should the candidates think about aging? For one powerful reason—the impact of the older voter. Older adults now make up the highest percentage of the voting population since 1970. They also are not a lock for either party for the first time since the 2000s. While Republicans have captured the older vote since 2010, the margin of that vote in 2018 was the smallest of this decade. Democrats should focus on why that happened and build from there.

Aging Issues on Candidate Platforms

Vice President Biden took the first major step in addressing a key aging issue with his caregiving platform, which would provide more than $400 billion for caregiving for older adults. Much of that funding would go toward lowering Medicaid home- and community-based care waitlists and providing tax breaks to family caregivers. Public support for family caregiver assistance is overwhelming; an April AARP poll found that 92 percent of adults ages 50 and older support tax breaks for family caregivers.

Shortly after that announcement, President Trump brought Social Security and Medicare into the campaign with his executive order suspending the payroll tax, which provides the revenue needed for both programs. The suspension, while short in duration, calls into question whether this represents a violation of the President’s pledge not to touch Social Security or Medicare.

Beyond these two examples, what other key aging issues will get attention?

The list must include the overarching issue in this election: the pandemic. We know that older adults have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Forty percent of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes. Also we know that disparities in healthcare are a key negative factor and, when paired with the dramatic increase in minority population means that some older adults have been lifetime victims of inferior care and systemic racism. Will older voters endorse the pandemic response of the Trump administration or will it motivate them to vote for Biden?

‘The cost of prescription drugs as a driver to lower healthcare costs is certainly an issue.’

Ten years after it became law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) remains another key aging issue. The law was demonized by Republicans, none of whom voted for it, and they charged that it made major cuts to Medicare. It led to Republicans in 2010 capturing the older vote and the Democrats losing 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

Do older adults know that the improvements we have seen in Medicare are due to the ACA? It’s hard to tell, but after a rocky start, polls are finding that older adults now support the ACA by a narrow margin, 46 percent favorable opinion versus 40 percent unfavorable. Trump has spent a good part of his four years in office trying to repeal the ACA. Biden, who was Vice President when it became law, wants to strengthen it.

The cost of prescription drugs as a driver to lower healthcare costs is certainly an issue. A recent poll released by Gallup and West Health shows how much of a kitchen table issue this is to people of all ages: 50 percent of U.S. adults fear bankruptcy due to a major health event, including 40 percent of older adults.

Here again, there is a clear distinction between the candidates. Biden has endorsed H.R.3, the signature bill of House Democrats to lower drug costs. Trump has issued various executive orders intending to lower drug costs, but their impact has not resulted in appreciable savings. Perhaps the key point of distinction is whether Medicare should negotiate for the price of drugs. Biden supports this proposal; Trump does not. Polls suggest older voters support price negotiation.

Societal Issues and How Older Adults Might Vote

Broader issues include racial justice and equity. The candidates’ views are polarized on this topic as well. Is this a motivating issue on either side of the political aisle for older voters, especially for the increased number of minority older voters? Does a generation of rebellious boomers from the 1960s see this as a cause they should embrace?

Both of these questions have yet to be answered, but in July, Gallup found that 54 percent of respondents ages 65 and older support recent racial justice protests. How does the choice of Senator Kamala Harris as Biden’s vice-presidential choice play into this? Her selection may be helpful for Biden; an August poll found that 55 percent of all voters ages 65 and older approved of Biden’s choice of Harris.

A related issue is “law and order,” which has been newly weaponized by the Trump campaign. How are generations that got their news and views from television reacting to what they see in places like Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wisc.?

Do older adults have a higher regard for authority such as law enforcement? (It seems they do; as of June, 58 percent of adults ages 55 and older have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, compared to 48 percent of the population as a whole.)

Are they motivated by a concern for safe streets? It’s possible. Only 13 percent of older adults think that police spending should be decreased, compared to 45 percent of adults ages 29 and younger.

Finally, the process of voting itself may be an age issue, one we were not expecting. Older voters have traditionally turned out in higher number than other groups. Will fear of COVID-19 keep them from voting in person? And will Trump’s criticism of mail-in voting keep them from voting?

According to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that criticism could adversely impact Republicans. An August survey by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape shows that 48 percent of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail, as compared to only 23 percent of Trump supporters.

The unknowns about this election clearly outnumber what is known, but let us hope one thing does not end up impacting the election: ageism. It has shown up in campaign ads from Trump about Biden and in media stories questioning Trump’s health. We know ageism has no place in a Presidential election.

Robert Blancato is the president of Matz, Blancato & Associates, the National Coordinator of the bipartisan 3,000-member Elder Justice Coalition and of the Defeat Malnutrition Today coalition, and the Executive Director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs. He is a Past Chair of the Board of the American Society on Aging and on the National Board of AARP. Meredith Ponder Whitmire is vice president of Matz, Blancato & Associates.