Sanders Bids for Older Voters Emphasizing Social Security Plan

  • Vermont Democrat needs big turnout to win in Iowa caucuses
  • Sanders tries to draw distinction with Clinton on issue

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally on Jan. 27, 2016 in Mason City, Iowa.

Bernie Sanders is counting on young voters turning out to win next Monday’s Iowa caucuses. But by putting an emphasis on his plans for Social Security, the Vermont Senator isn’t ceding older Democrats to Hillary Clinton.

Sanders has been playing up in speeches, interviews and television ads his commitment to lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes for top earners as a way to raise benefits.

Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally in Davenport

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

While Clinton insists she’s no less committed to protecting the retirement and disability insurance program, Sanders is making the case that there’s a difference between the two of them for voters worried about their Social Security benefits.

“Every sort of older person who decides they’re going to be for Bernie Sanders means we’re taking a lot more support away from Hillary Clinton,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist who’s advising Sanders. “It’s a very effective way for us to bring people into his camp, and I think it has had an impact.”

Age Gap

Sanders is facing an age gap among voters. While likely Democratic caucus participants ages 18 to 44 back Sanders by almost a 4-to-1 margin, Clinton is ahead 53 percent to 39 percent among voters 45 to 64 years old and 71 percent to 21 percent among voters over 65, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. 

Sanders said Thursday he needs the people packing his rallies to show up at caucuses in large numbers if he is to win Iowa. But older voters historically turn out in higher proportions than younger ones. In the 2012 general election in Iowa, 85 percent of registered voters 65 and older -- the main beneficiaries of Social Security -- cast ballots compared with about half of voters under 35, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

Sanders wants to keep the cap on taxable income for Social Security at the current $118,500 a year for those earning up to $250,000 annually, and apply the levy on all earnings above that amount. It would mean the top wage earners would pay more to extend the solvency of the program and expand benefits by $1,300 a year for people making less than $16,000, he said.

“That is my view, to the best of my knowledge, that is not Secretary Clinton’s view,” Sanders told reporters on Tuesday after a campaign stop in Des Moines. “And I would hope that she would join me in standing up with the millions of seniors and disabled vets who are struggling on inadequate Social Security benefits.”

Clinton also has talked about preserving Social Security by asking the wealthiest to pay more, including possibly taxing some income above the current cap, though she has not provided specifics. Those are the sorts of details any president would have to work out with Congress, the former secretary of state has said.

Clinton Position

“I think it’s a mistake to go in and say, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ sort of in effect hand them your negotiating position,” Clinton told the Des Moines Register editorial board earlier this month. “I think it’s smarter to say, ‘Look, I’m never going to go along with your privatization plan. I will not go along with raising the retirement age as the answer to everything that ails Social Security, but I will work with you to try to figure out how we help those people who are most disadvantaged.”’

To some extent, the distinction between the two candidates in the issue is a matter of semantics, said Rachel Paine Caufield, associate director of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines.

“I’m not sure that difference is going to be a make-or-break decision point for a lot of voters,” Caufield said.

Still, with polls showing the race between Sanders and Clinton close and the outcome potentially dependent on which camp gets its supporters to caucus on a snowy night, the Sanders campaign said there’s a difference between saying you’ll look at something and saying you’ll do it.

“If you’re a senior citizen who’s worried about Social Security or somebody’s who’s close to retirement who’s worried about Social Security, it makes a big difference,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.

‘Compassionate Man’

Katie Voet, 59, a nurse from Mason City who said she’s choosing between Sanders and Clinton, said Social Security could decide her vote.

“That sways me more towards Bernie,” Voet said after a Sanders rally on Wednesday. “I worry about me, when I retire and all my loved ones because it’s getting harder to save up money to be able to count on Social Security when you do retire.”

Besides the importance of the policy to voters, the issue also can help Sanders make an emotional connection, Devine said.

At an event Monday at Iowa City, Sanders turned the microphone to audience members struggling to get by on their current incomes or benefits. A tearful Carrie Aldrich described how she has been ashamed to rely on support from her parents as she tries to get Social Security disability benefits for a neurological disorder.

“It’s so hard to do anything but pay your bills,” Aldrich, 46, of Alden, told Sanders. “When you can’t buy presents for your children, it’s really, really hard.”

After the forum, Aldrich said she’s backing Sanders because she trusts him more than Clinton to deliver.

“He is such a compassionate man,” Aldrich said.

--With assistance from Arit John.

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