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August 16, 2013 11:00 AM There Is No Such Thing as the Senior Vote

By Keith Humphreys

Charlie Cook and Erica Seifert‘s analyses of senior citizens’ voting intentions have drawn a significant amount of attention (See Kevin Drum’s take here, Ed Kilgore’s here). While not uninformative, such analyses may rest on the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as “the” senior vote. When senior citizens were a small part of the population, it might not have mattered in predicting electoral outcomes that their voting intentions were discussed as a lump. But with the senior population currently at 41.4 million and growing rapidly, underestimating its diversity could lead to serious political forecasting errors.

The current senior population includes veterans of World War II and veterans of the Viet Nam War; African-Americans whose adult life was lived entirely after the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights Acts, as well as many who lived for decades under Jim Crow; women who made decisions about marriage and career prior to the founding of NOW and women who made them afterwards; people who liked Ike and people who were too young to vote for him. Those people just turning 65 thus see many political issues differently than do those oldsters who are 75 or 85.

In analyzing the youth vote, political prognosticators focus on a narrower 11-year birth cohort (i.e., people age 18-29). Yet when they analyze seniors, they treat anyone from age 65 to 105 as an undifferentiated mass. As the country’s grey ranks continue to swell in the coming years, this oversight will become ever more problematic for electoral forecasting efforts.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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