As we approach summer in Washington, policymakers and pundits alike remain distracted by a host of scandals. The alleged targeting of conservative political groups by IRS officials, while relegated to Congressional hearings and calls for additional investigations (for now), will be red meat for candidates running in next year's midterm elections. Recent revelations that the NSA has been monitoring phone calls only adds to the narrative that we'll likely see play out in the coming months: government, regardless of its reach, is increasingly misguided.
However, it would be political malpractice to assume that fundamental issues - Medicare, the economy, trade, etc. - will take a backseat to today's scandals. As incumbent policymakers know well, taking one's eye off these fundamental issues (often at the expense of entire voting blocs) is often a recipe for failure. This is especially relevant for voters over 65, who are increasingly drifting to the Republican Party. Taking into account that nearly six in 10 seniors voted for Mitt Romney (up from half who voted for McCain 2008), it's critical that Democrats right the ship before 2014.
By all accounts, 2012 marked a period in which Democrats were inspired by a larger turnout of young and non-white voters. However, two years earlier, seniors comprised 23 percent of the vote (an increase from 16 percent in 2008). The youth vote in 2010 was only 11 percent, down from 18 percent in 2008. A fired up senior electorate can easily sway a close election.
With this idea in mind, a key issue for Republicans and Democrats will be establishing a permanent trust on Medicare. Every American over 65 relies on the program in some way, and a large swath of Medicare participants have to deal with a chronic medical condition. Seniors are often afraid of losing their benefits and having programs they rely on cost more money or get cut altogether.
Case in point is Medicare Part D, the popular prescription drug benefit. This is a program that has been a sterling success, in a time when confidence in government is reaching all-time lows. Part D is a rare example of a government program that has consistently cost less year after year than originally budgeted. To be specific, it has cost $348 billion less than original estimates. The Congressional Budget Office found every one percent increase in prescriptions filled results in a .20 percent decrease in spending on other Medicare services.
Key take-away for seniors: what works in heath care is likely to be well received heading into next year's election. While Obamacare continues to experience stagnant approval ratings (the latest polls continue to trend downward), it's clear that seniors will gravitate toward public policies that meet their needs and help to address health care spending.
For both Democrats and Republicans, the good news is that the senior vote is still gettable. However, a good portion of voters over 65 pay close attention to policy specifics, making it more important to ensure that both parties recognize this. Preserving programs that work, while prioritizing seniors' long-term interests, will yield significant political dividends in 2014 and beyond.
Neither side can afford losing them.
Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What it Means for 2012 and Beyond, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.