Perry ‘Ponzi’ Remark Carries Political Risk by Pitting Old Against Young

To get a sense of the political risk Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry faces by calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” meet Flo McDonald.

“They should shoot him for what he said about Social Security,” said the 82-year-old, sitting by the pool at Kings Point, a retirement community outside of Tampa, Florida.

Perry’s remarks about Social Security have exposed a generational divide among Americans. Sixty-two percent of adults aged 55 and older disagree with Perry’s characterization of the program, while 55 percent of those 35 years of age and younger agree with it, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 9-12.

Those dynamics set the stage for primary contests in such early voting states as Florida and Iowa that have a high percentage of seniors who are reliable voters. In 2008, 44 percent of Republican primary voters in Florida were 50 years old or older; in Iowa, seniors represented 27 percent of the primary turnout.

“We have very clear age schisms,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “That makes it a tricky issue here.”

Sipping coffee inside the Kings Point clubhouse, Angela Foti said she’s worried about Perry’s undefined pledge to remake the program, particularly given the economic decline.

“What are we going to do, go bag groceries?” said the 71- year-old retired secretary. “Who’s going to hire me?”

Perry has said that no current Social Security recipient would be affected.

Independents Split

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, 64, who was ahead in primary polls until Perry, 61, entered the race, said his rival’s position makes him unelectable because it alienates independent voters whose support will be necessary to beat President Barack Obama. In the Bloomberg poll, independents were split, with 48 percent agreeing with Perry and 46 percent disagreeing with him.

“I want to save Social Security,” Romney said in a Sept. 8 interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “It is an essential safety net for the American people. And number two, it is terrible politics. If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party.”

Perry’s supporters said voters will reward him for speaking frankly about the financial challenges of the program.

“One of the appeals of Governor Perry as a candidate for president is he’s willing to say what he thinks,” said Henry Barbour, a Perry fundraiser. “People are sick and tired of politicians who are afraid to tell the truth.”

Young Voters

The message did resonate with younger voters, who were interviewed in Florida and by telephone after the Bloomberg poll. They said they don’t expect the program to be around when they retire if changes to it aren’t made today.

“To call it a Ponzi scheme is absolutely valid and not insulting at all,” said Phillip Koski, 18, of Port Charlotte, Florida. “Mitt Romney is just trying to do what every politician wants to do, brush the problem aside as if it’s nothing.”

Travis Carrell, a 34-year-old from Louisiana, said Perry’s statement makes him more likely to support the Texas governor.

“You’d be surprised how many regular working guys really feel like they’re getting hosed with Social Security,” he said. “Guys like Rick Perry and myself, we feel we’re getting Ponzi’ed.”

Perry has attempted to assuage the fears of seniors by saying that he “slam-dunk guaranteed” that benefits would be available to current retirees. “Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program’s going to be there for them when they arrive there,” he said in a Sept. 12 debate in Tampa.

Attitudes Changing

Voters, including many seniors, are increasingly recognizing that changes must be made to the program, says MacManus.

“There’s an assumption outside of Florida that you can’t talk critically of Social Security but that is really not true,” she said. “A lot of people know that something is going to have to be done on Social Security.”

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio proposed raising the retirement age for younger workers in his 2010 campaign -- a proposal that sparked attack advertisements from opponent former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who promised to protect the program. Rubio won a three-way race in 2010 by 19 percentage points.

“It’s a delicate balance of trying to speak to an issue that needs to be reformed while also assuring current Social Security recipients that they’re not going to be impacted,” said Republican consultant Eric Eikenberg, who worked for Crist and former Florida Representative Clay Shaw, when he was chairman of the Social Security committee. “You have to be careful in your choice of words.”

Back at the Kings Point pool, Rosemary McEvoy, 71, said Perry has been rhetorically careless. “Social Security is so important to practically everybody in Sun City,” she said. “He shouldn’t talk about it like that.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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