What's The Gop's Favorite Color? Gray

Tired of scandal, the 60-plus crowd gets more Republican

Surf over to the Third Age, a Web site catering to seniors, and you'll find the chat rooms still sizzle with all-Monica, all-the-time commentary. While Bill Clinton still has plenty of support, many agree with a message posted by David N. Smith: "As of now, I have ceased voting for Democrats for national office, not because I like the GOP, but because the Demos tore their pants with that dishonorable vote against Clinton's conviction."

This breach didn't come easily for Smith, 64, a retired vocational counselor from Ozark, Ala. "I've been a Democrat all my life," he says. "As for Democratic politicians--there's not an honest one in the bunch." Smith will try voting Republican next election.

The alienation of David Smith represents a trend that is beguiling demographers: the transformation of once-solidly Democratic oldsters into political swingers. Although popular wisdom holds that the party of FDR commands the elder vote, reality is different--and more encouraging for Republicans. Fact is, members of the New Deal generation are dying off. The sixtysomething cohort behind them is more fiscally conservative, angrier over moral decline, and less predictably Democratic.

Exit polls show that seniors cast a slim but growing majority of votes for Republicans in the past three House elections. If all national races are considered, 60-plus voters split their votes between Democrats and Republicans in 1994 and shifted decisively into the GOP column in '98--making them the most Republican-leaning of all age groups. While black seniors remain overwhelmingly Democratic, 60% of older whites voted for the GOP candidate in their districts.

No wonder Democratic strategists are reaching for the Geritol. "We can't afford to keep losing 60-to-70-year-olds," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "As it stands, seniors are going to be one of the battlegrounds in 2000, when they should be solidly Democratic."

That's why both Vice-President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, and his leading GOP rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush, will have to devise "silver strategies" to woo elderly voters. Seniors are a significant chunk of the electorate in key swing states such as New Jersey and Ohio. And Florida's 25 electoral votes are pivotal. Without them, it's hard to see how Bush or any other Republican could overcome Gore's strength on the East and West Coasts.

Ironically, some of the declining loyalty to Democrats can be attributed to the success of New Deal safety-net programs. In the Thirties, many seniors lived in poverty. By 1991, the last year for which census figures are available, the median net worth of households headed by Americans 65-and-over had climbed to $88,192, more than double the national average. This relative affluence spurs concerns about taxes, asset preservation, and inheritance--core issues for the GOP.

ONE BETTER. Despite GOP inroads, Democrats still have an edge. In a January, 1999, Pew Research Center poll, seniors backed Democratic approaches to fixing Social Security over Republican ideas by 54% to 17%. The President's plan to keep Uncle Sam as the guarantor of retirement is more popular with seniors than GOP calls for a privatized system with greater investor risks.

What's the GOP's Favorite Color? Gray

Maybe that's why on Mar. 4 Republicans startled rival Dems by unveiling a new House-Senate budget proposal that goes Clinton one better by committing--on paper, at least--the entire federal surplus to shoring up the retirement system. "We're going to lock away every penny of the Social Security trust fund for our nation's elderly," proclaims Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

And while Social Security reform promises to dwarf all other issues this year, Congress also may take up pension portability, expanded programs for low-income seniors, and calls for a cut in inheritance taxes.

So if you see Bush, Gore, and their fellow Presidential rivals playing lots of shuffleboard in South Florida this spring, don't be surprised. With seniors increasingly up for grabs, neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to take the gray vote for granted.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.