Polls suggest lower support of Bush by elderly

Prescription benefit plan seen as way to gain votes

October 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush's support among older voters has dropped substantially in recent months, eroding Republican gains and highlighting the importance of this critical electoral group next year, political strategists and analysts say.

The trend underscores the stakes for Bush in the congressional negotiations aimed at creating a long-promised prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which covers 40 million elderly and disabled Americans.

Negotiators missed a self-imposed deadline Friday for reaching agreement on the prescription legislation, but vowed to complete their work before Congress adjourns, which is expected next month.

Bush's popularity has declined overall since early summer, but some recent polls suggest that he lost significantly more ground among voters 65 and older than he did among younger Americans.

Politicians in both parties consider older voters to be particularly important because they are much more likely to vote than younger people, and because they are heavily concentrated in states that are often presidential battlegrounds, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican and longtime Republican campaign strategist, said, "It's still a very fluid vote that can swing on a dime."

A poll conducted this month by The New York Times and CBS News showed that Bush had a 41 percent approval rating among voters 65 and older, his lowest among any age group. That was down from 44 percent in July and 63 percent in May.

Similar trends have been reported this fall by the Pew Research Center.

The latest Gallup Poll, released last week, showed that even as Bush's overall approval rating had risen to 56 percent from 50 percent during the past month, voters older than 65 remained his weakest age group. Of them, 49 percent approved of the job he was doing, compared with 60 percent of those 30 to 49.

Analysts in both parties note the economy, the stock market and the situation in Iraq as major factors in the slippage, along with more traditional concerns for older Americans such as Medicare and the cost of prescription drugs.

Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: "With low interest rates and a sluggish economy, they're the group that's probably harmed the most. They're not getting the rate of return they would have expected with the savings they have."

Matsui said that although low inflation is generally an advantage for those living on fixed incomes, "health care costs have gone up unabated, and that's the area they're most concerned about."

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, said that despite recent improvements in the stock market, which is closely followed by many retirees, "there's a lot of ground to make up." That could be hurting Bush's standing among some older males, or contributing to what Goeas described as "grumpy old men."

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who works with Goeas on a bipartisan survey known as the Battleground Poll, said the aftermath of the war in Iraq, including the cost of reconstruction, also helped explain the erosion of Bush's support among older voters.

"Seniors had really moved toward Bush on the security issue during the war, and now they're moving back. "They hate spending the $87 billion over in Iraq," Lake said.

"This is one group that doesn't like deficits, because they feel they jeopardize Social Security and Medicare," she said.

Democrats, who pride themselves on their advocacy of Social Security and Medicare, have long relied on the votes of older Americans. But that bloc has been increasingly up for grabs in recent years, in part because of the passing of the heavily Democratic generation that came of age with the New Deal, but also, strategists say, because Republicans have grown far more adept at cultivating older Americans' support.

In 2000, Bush lost the 60-and-older vote to Vice President Al Gore 51 percent to 47 percent, but Republicans carried it in last year's congressional elections, as well as the congressional elections of 1998, 1996 and 1994.

Mindful of the importance of this group, many Republicans consider it a top priority to deliver a Medicare drug benefit before next year's election. This could be, many Republican strategists have argued, a transformational event in American politics - a Republican president and a Republican Congress producing the biggest expansion of Medicare, a signature Democratic program, since the program's creation.

But the effort to produce a popular benefit with $400 billion over 10 years has not been easy. The bills that emerged from the House and Senate fall far short of what many working people receive, with large co-payments and gaps in coverage.

Many older Americans have expressed concerns to their lawmakers that they could end up losing coverage they get from their former employers, which is sometimes better than what the government would provide.

Jack Banister, a retiree in Hanover, Ind., who strongly supports Bush, said when interviewed for the recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, "I'd sure like them to leave the prescription drug thing alone. A lot of us have worked all our lives to prepare ourselves for retirement and put in position our drug care system. And the federal government coming in is likely to screw that all up."

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