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Florida retiree Angela Foti has a message for the Presidential candidates: Hands off Social Security and Medicare benefits. “Everybody knows we paid for it, and that’s the way it is,” the 71-year-old says as she sips coffee in the clubhouse at Kings Point, a retirement community outside of Tampa. “I think it’s just stupid to talk about cuts.”
Perilous as it may be—a Bloomberg National Poll in October found majorities of more than 80 percent against reducing Social Security or Medicare benefits—reining in both programs is part of the current political debate. How it plays out in Florida, the largest swing state and home to the nation’s highest concentration of seniors, could help decide who wins the White House next year.
Most Republican Presidential candidates supported House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to increase the retirement age and transform Medicare into a voucher program. Democrats believed they had been handed a golden campaign issue and were dismayed when President Barack Obama signaled that he would be willing to entertain some changes to Medicare as part of a “grand bargain” that would include tax increases to curb the federal deficit.
Obama has held firm on Social Security, while Texas Governor Rick Perry has dubbed it a “Ponzi scheme” and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has warned about its “looming bankruptcy” even as he promised to preserve it. By next November the key to winning Florida may come down to which matters most: fear of what a Republican President might do to spending for the elderly or general dissatisfaction with a sour economy.
The power of the entitlement issues was on display in the House district of freshman Republican Representative Allen West, a favorite of the antitax Tea Party movement. After voting for the Ryan budget plan in April, West was confronted at a chaotic town hall meeting by protesters demanding to know why he was “stealing” their Medicare. More than 2.7 million Florida residents 65 or older received Social Security benefits in December 2010, the most in any state except California. An additional 3.3 million received Medicare benefits. Those retirees do more than golf and shop: They vote. When Obama carried the state in 2008, people 50 and older constituted nearly half of all voters, six points higher than the national average, according to AARP, the nation’s largest seniors organization .
Because Florida Republicans moved their primary election up to Jan. 31, the state’s seniors could play a critical role in choosing the party’s Presidential nominee. “It could all come down to Florida,” says Susie Wiles, a veteran Republican consultant not aligned with any candidate.
Democrats say they’ve found a winning strategy for the general election. “Given that every Republican candidate supports ending Medicare as we know it, I don’t think that’s going to bode well for Republican candidates in Florida,” says Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents a South Florida district in Congress and is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Eric Eikenberg, a Republican political consultant, believes candidates can take on Social Security as long as they explain clearly that proposed changes will not affect current recipients. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio came out in favor of raising the retirement age for younger workers in his 2010 campaign, yet overcame attack ads on the issue to win a three-way race by nearly 29 percentage points.
The issue is complicated by differences within the senior population. Those over 75 years are typically more populist Democrats, says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, while those in their 60s and early 70s have more of their wealth invested in the stock market and tend to skew Republican. How those more affluent voters respond to Romney’s and Perry’s comments about the program will test whether Social Security remains politically untouchable for future politicians, she says.
Another wild card in Florida could be the state’s growing Hispanic population. If Rubio, who is considered a potential Vice-Presidential pick, winds up on a Republican ticket, that would add another competitive element.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials predicts that 1.65 million Hispanics will head to the Florida polls in 2012, making up 18 percent of the electorate. Cubans in South Florida, who have traditionally voted Republican, remain the largest Hispanic group in the state. Yet in recent years an influx of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans has benefited Democrats.