Romney faces battle for support of over-60s


EVEN BEFORE his running mate was booed by a lobbying group for older Americans on Friday, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was losing support among such voters, whose backing is crucial to his hopes of winning the November 6th election.

New polling by Reuters/Ipsos indicates that during the past two weeks – since just after the Democratic National Convention – support for Mr Romney among Americans aged 60 and older has crumbled, from a 20-point lead over Democratic president Barack Obama to less than four points.

Mr Romney’s double-digit advantages among older voters on the issues of healthcare and Medicare – the nation’s health insurance programme for those over 65 and the disabled – also have evaporated, and Mr Obama has begun to build an advantage in both areas.

Voting preferences could change in the final six weeks of the campaign, but the polling suggests that a series of recent episodes favouring Mr Obama could be chipping away at Mr Romney’s support among older Americans.

Mr Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate put the federal budget and Medicare at centre stage in the campaign. But the debate over spending and entitlement programmes that Mr Romney seemed to be seeking has not unfolded the way Republicans wanted.

At the Democratic convention former president Bill Clinton gave a blistering critique of Mr Ryan’s plan to revamp Medicare, warning it could leave seniors unprotected from escalating healthcare costs.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ efforts to portray Mr Romney as a wealthy former private equity executive with little sympathy for the less fortunate got a boost from the video showing him telling supporters at a $50,000-a-person fundraiser that 47 per cent of Americans would never vote for him because they do not pay federal income taxes, feel they are “victims”, and depend on government benefits.

Democrats have accused Mr Romney of dismissing a range of Americans, including elderly people who depend on government programmes such as Medicare and social security. And while his campaign rejects this, recent polls suggest such claims may be resonating with Americans aged 60 and older, who for months had been the only age group to consistently support him.

Analysts say that if Mr Romney cannot reverse the trend among older voters, he won’t win the election. “If Romney loses seniors, he loses this election, period,” said Jonathan Oberlander, a health policy specialist at the University of North Carolina. “A bad showing nationally [among older voters] does not bode well for Florida and other states with big senior populations.”

Mr Ryan’s plan for Medicare would limit the programme’s costs by converting it from a provider of popular benefits to a system that would give future beneficiaries a financial stipend to help pay for private insurance or traditional Medicare.

Democrats say Mr Ryan’s approach, which largely has been embraced by Republicans including Mr Romney, would further expose older people to rising healthcare costs and hasten Medicare’s financial instability.

Republicans argue that their plan would preserve Medicare for future generations. The system serves nearly 50 million retired and disabled Americans, and polls show stiff public resistance to the Ryan plan, with older voters opposing it by a 2-to-1 ratio. Until now, however, there have been few tangible signs that opposition to Mr Ryan’s plan would translate into a preference for president.

AARP, a grass-roots lobbying group with 37 million members aged 50 and up, backed Mr Obama’s healthcare plan against Republican critics. So it wasn’t too surprising last week when Mr Ryan, speaking at an AARP convention in New Orleans, faced a tough audience.

Less than five minutes into his speech, there were boos and cries of “No!” as he laid out the Republican message on Medicare and vowed to repeal “Obamacare”. But the data from Reuters/Ipsos polling – along with similar results from survey data of older voters by the Pew Research Center – indicate that the crowd’s response in New Orleans could symbolise more than just one large group’s discomfort with the Romney-Ryan ticket.

“This is certainly a bit of a game changer,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said of the increasing support for Mr Obama among older Americans. “Older individuals vote. They’re the ones who turn up on election day, for sure.”

Messrs Romney and Ryan are likely to need a clear victory among older voters to win the election, given Mr Obama’s advantages among other important voting groups such as women, minorities and young adults, analysts said.

“For Romney to win the election, he has to have the majority of the vote from people over 50,” said Robert Blendon, a political analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health. – (Reuters)