Bernie Sanders, the oldest person in the presidential race, is struggling to win over seniors
"We are doing very badly among older people and I want to change that," he said
Bernie Sanders isn’t usually one for public self reflection, so it was noteworthy earlier this month when the Vermont senator candidly admitted he needs to make a change to his campaign.
“We are doing very badly among older people and I want to change that,” Sanders said, unprovoked, after a two-day swing through Iowa. “We will change that.”
Polls have consistently shown a growing age gap in the fight for the Democratic nomination: Older Democrats have lined up with 68-year old Hillary Clinton, while younger voters are so far choosing to stand behind Sanders, the 74-year old self-described democratic socialist.
A Des Moines Register poll earlier this month found that Clinton has the support of 64% of Iowa Democrats 65 and older, while Sanders has the support of 58% of people younger than 45. A Fox News poll found similar results in New Hampshire: Sanders wins 59% of people under 45 years old, while Clinton wins 52% of people over than 45.
Sanders’ campaign, at the spurring of the candidate, plans to tackle its age gap in the coming weeks by courting older voters and focusing on issues like Social Security and Medicare.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, told CNN the campaign will use “every tool of modern campaigning to reach out to older voters.” That includes TV and radio advertising aimed squarely at seniors, as well as direct mail campaigns that will largely focus on Sanders’ record on prescription drug costs and protecting Medicare.
“It is obvious that older voters need more information about Bernie Sanders, his record and his agenda,” Weaver said. “While it is true that many seniors are online, many seniors are also not and this campaign a lot of younger voters have learned about Bernie’s campaign on social media and online, so I think it is fair to say that younger voters are more familiar with him.”
There is an irony to this, one that at times baffles Sanders’ longtime aides: The Vermont senator, the oldest person in either party running for president, has a reputation in his home state for dropping by retirement homes and community healthcare centers because of his interest in healthcare and he has long talked about Social Security and Medicare, two issues important to seniors.
None of this, however, is winning needed senior support.
Although Sanders’ aides feel his problem with older voters is familiarity, conversations with seniors backing Clinton show it is actually her electability and their loyalty to the Clinton family that put the former secretary of state over the edge.
“For me, it is like in my lifetime I would like to see a woman that I agree with in the White House,” said Nancy Sweetman, a 71-year old from Mason City as she waited for Clinton to speak at a rally this month. “And part of it is a loyalty to the Clintons over the years.”
Sweetman and her husband, Chuck, have caucused for Democrats in Iowa since 1974, regularly, they say, not supporting the winner. But after supporting Clinton in 2008 and looking at their 2016 options, the pair was drawn to Clinton, in part, because they think she can win.
“People our age are tired of all the flash in the pan stuff and we would like to see something get done that we agree with. And in that regard I think Hillary is a much stronger candidate than Bernie,” said Chuck Sweetman, “I don’t think his is electable and I don’t want the White House to go to a Republican.”
For her part, Clinton has targeted older voters by speaking directly to their issues, something Sanders will look to mimic in the coming weeks. She has addresses rising prescription drugs costs and has made a point at targeting funding research to cure diseases.
In August, she told the AFL-CIO, a powerful union, that she wants to “enhance benefits for our most vulnerable seniors,” including Social Security, and has recently focused on altering benefits so that spouses who live longer aren’t struggling without benefits accrued by their late husbands or wives.
All this is a problem for Sanders because older voters are more likely to go to the polls than their younger counterparts.
While people 65 and older made up 15% of Iowa’s population in 2008, they were 22% of the Democratic caucus participants that year. The number was even starker in 2012, where Republicans 65 and older made up 26% of the caucus participants.
The same is true in New Hampshire: In 2008, the last competitive Democratic primary race, 13% of primary participants were 65 and older while only 8.7% of the state was in that age group. What’s more, 44% of the electorate was older than 50 and Clinton won a plurality of these voters.
Sanders has started to try to win seniors over. He headlined an event at a seniors community center in Dover, New Hampshire earlier this month, where he pledged to expand Social Security and address prescription drug costs.
“Not only will I oppose any efforts to cut Social Security benefits,” Sanders said. “What we are going to do is expand Social Security benefits.”
But his top aides acknowledged it will take more than just a few events.
“Young people are attracted to Bernie’s positive and future oriented message,” said Weaver. “And we think that is a message that will as be appealing to older voters, too.”