Armed with a deeply ingrained sense of civic responsibility and reams of information about candidates and ballot initiatives, seniors are as engaged as ever in Arizona politics, even though the issues that most directly affect them are being routinely ignored in this year’s midterm elections.
Health care, Social Security, long-term care, Medicare and prescription drugs — all identified as looming catastrophes in previous campaigns — have made nary a ripple in the roiling rhetoric dominated by the war in Iraq and immigration.
“I don’t think the senior issues are the important issues right now,” said Gladys Smalle, 85, of Scottsdale.
Sure, she’s feeling the pinch of rising drug prices and would like the federal government to allow importation of U.S.-made drugs from Canada. But Smalle is looking far beyond her own medicine cabinet — to Iraq.
Asked to define her top election issue, she said, “To bring the boys home.”
Sitting beside her recently at the Granite Reef Scottsdale Senior Center, Al Jacobson, 66, agreed that the war trumps all other issues this election year, but argued that the troops must stay put to preserve peace and establish democracy.
Aging advocates say it’s hard to pigeonhole older voters. Even though they care deeply about Social Security, prescription drug costs and other matters that directly affect them, they tend to have a broader perspective colored by their experience — many have lived through several wars and the Depression — and their progeny.
“Sometimes people see them as greedy geezers. They’re not,” said Mary Lynn Kasunic, president and chief executive officer of the Area Agency on Aging. “They’re concerned about their children and their families.”
And they’re less likely than younger voters to ask for help, Kasunic said.
“They’re from a generation that says, ‘Take care of yourself. Make do with what you have,’ ” she said.
That’s supported by recent polls, including one by the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted earlier this month.
Personally, health care was the top concern among all age groups, but Iraq ranked as the most important issue when deciding whom to vote for in federal races, the survey found. Voters 65 years and older were more likely than younger voters to name Iraq as their top political issue.
And although their views differ on the war, new AARP polls show a solid majority of those 42 and older looking for candidates who support a national health care program, oppose private accounts for Social Security and are willing to consider additional government funding for long-term care.
Three-quarters of those responding to the Kaiser poll believe domestic issues — like health care, the economy and education — are getting short shrift.
AARP’s chief executive officer, Bill Novelli, was at Desert Ridge Marketplace last week for a book-signing where he predicted that those domestic issues will change in 2008, and said politicians ignore these issues at their peril. The nation’s 78 million baby boomers will see to it, he said.
“We’ve got to get people to raise their voices,” Novelli said. “They’re already in a state of worry. I think the next step is to get them to demand change.”
Seniors say they’re fed up with the political chicanery and trash-talking TV ads. They bemoan the massive amounts of money spent on campaigns, distrust much of what they see and hear, and long for the days when candidates laid out their dreams for the future instead of attacking their opponent.
“I would just like them to speak the truth,” Adela Reyes Soto said during a break from bingo at the Mesa Senior Center. “They just keep running each other down.”
“According to them, they’re all crooks,” Jacobson said.
But still, these seniors vote.
Seniors routinely turn out in higher numbers than any other demographic group. In the last election, more than two-thirds of the registered voters 65 years and older cast ballots, compared with fewer than half of those under 35, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“When they were growing up, it was an expectation. Voting was just an assumption, a civic habit,” said Alberto Olivas, director of voter information and outreach at Maricopa Community Colleges’ Center for Civic Participation.
Olivas has been leading a series of voter information workshops throughout the Valley. When he visits senior centers, as he did last week in Mesa, he finds well-informed voters who ask sophisticated questions.
“They bring their publicity pamphlets with them, dogeared and marked up,” Olivas said. “On all these issues, we find varying opinions. We don’t have group think.”
Some of them are irritated by the lengthy ballot — the largest ever in Maricopa County, with 19 propositions and most cities tacking on two or three municipal measures — but they want to make sure they understand each question, he said.
Longtime Arizona State University pollster and professor Bruce Merrill said seniors often get much of their information from TV, where war dominates the news.
October has been the deadliest month this year for American forces. Those casualties don’t sit well with many seniors, he said.
“A lot of these people were World War II generation, and Vietnam. They’ve seen a lot of war.” Merrill said. “War isn’t something they value because it threatens their kids and their grandkids.”