For most campaigns, the equation is simple: Seniors care about Medicare and Social Security — and often vote — so candidates vow loudly and frequently to protect the programs.
But for U.S. Senate contenders Timothy M. Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), this year’s election is a bit more complicated, as they learned while courting older Virginia voters last week.
The former governors say they will safeguard Medicare and Social Security but have starkly different plans for doing so. And while seniors are concerned about entitlements, many appeared to care as much or more about other issues.
Just talk to the residents of Ashby Ponds, a retirement community in Ashburn. That’s what Allen did last week.
Republicans in the audience asked about President Obama’s executive orders, Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the possibility that the Senate might grant taxing power to the United Nations. Democrats pointedly asked Allen about the consequences of repealing health-care reform and his support for “personhood” legislation, which would define life as beginning at conception.
Although Allen discussed Medicare and Social Security in his opening remarks, no one in the crowd asked him for his views on the programs, and retired teacher Faye Barondes had a good idea why.
“This is a very successful community,” said Barondes, 91, referring to Ashby Ponds. “People are not in the sort of worrying mode about how they’re going to cover their expenses as they would be in some other senior facilities.”
Emmett Dunsmore, 80, a retired pharmaceutical company employee, agreed that fellow residents were not particularly anxious about the entitlement programs.
“I think that’s because probably those top issues in the country kind of overwhelm Medicare and Social Security,” he said.
That dynamic changes in other Northern Virginia communities, as Kaine found out when he addressed a gathering at a Fairfax County community center convened by Social Security Works, a coalition of unions and liberal groups that advocate for the program.
There, nearly every question was about the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Some were quite detailed, including one query about a proposal to close Social Security offices early on Wednesdays.
Kaine said that focus, and such talk throughout this campaign season, was a “virtue.”
“I bet we will talk more about Medicare in 2012 than in any year since [President Lyndon B. Johnson] signed Medicare into law,” Kaine said.
In a Washington Post poll in Virginia last month, only 1 percent of voters — and just 1 percent of those 65 and older — named Medicare as the most important issue in the Senate race. Less than 1 percent picked Social Security. (Kaine and Allen were essentially tied among senior voters in the poll.)
But campaign operatives believe entitlement issues are more potent than polls suggest. Kaine released an ad last month critical of Allen for his Medicare and Social Security positions, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran a similar spot. Allen’s camp called the committee's ad “tired and failed scare tactics” from the “Washington playbook.”
Kaine has attacked Allen on multiple fronts, including his vote as a U.S. senator in 2006 for a plan that would have partially privatized Social Security and for broadly praising the House budget blueprints of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the Republican vice-presidential nominee, which included plans to convert all or part of Medicare into a voucher program.
Allen has refused to take a specific position on Ryan’s Medicare plan, although he supports converting Medicaid, which many lower-income seniors rely on, to a block grant program that would be administered by states and could lead to a reduction of benefits.
In turn, Allen has repeatedly assailed Kaine for supporting Obama’s health-care law, which Republicans frequently charge would take more than $700 billion from Medicare. Democrats and some fact-checkers call the allegation misleading, saying the law would reduce future spending on Medicare to offset costs while extending the solvency of the Medicare trust fund.
At their debate in Richmond last week, sponsored by AARP and the League of Women Voters, Allen said he would consider gradually raising the Social Security retirement age and possibly means-testing the program. “For those who are millionaires, they don’t need to have all the same benefits as those of lower income,” Allen said.
Kaine said at the debate that he would protect Social Security “to my last breath,” although at the Fairfax event he said there should be “appropriate adjustments over time” to ensure the program is financially stable.
Bob Young, 77, a Democrat and Kaine supporter, said he thought many of his fellow Fairfax seniors, like those in Ashburn, were “pretty well-off” and not solely focused on entitlements.
“I think they’re also worried about a whole range of issues — from foreign policy to tax policy,” Young said. “They’re not just concerned about Social Security and Medicare.”