Politics

03.07.12

Super Tuesday: Mitt Romney’s Senior Citizen Surge

Romney may be struggling to clinch the GOP nomination. But it’s not for lack of love from the older set. Michelle Cottle on Mitt’s real base.

Oy. Could Tuesday night have been any more brutal? Talk about a Super Tuesday designed to give all parties involved a massive ulcer.

Except Newt Gingrich, of course. His campaign is still deader than disco, but since Sheldon Adelson doesn’t seem to care and the money is still flowing, why not let the speaker bask in his Georgia win? Whoo-hoo! 47 percent! Way to go!

Now back to the real race. Few political watchers thought Romney would wrap anything up Tuesday, but the returns must still have come as a bit of a downer. Brutally close in Ohio. Serious ass-whipping in Tennessee. And less than 60 percent in Virginia(!), where Ron Paul was his only competition.

It’s enough to give a presumptive front-runner a complex.

But Romney strikes me as a glass-half-full kind of guy, so let us not wallow in the negatives. Sure, it appears that much of his party base still cannot bear the thought of him as its nominee. On the other hand, there are some constituencies who continue to come through for him time after time: Mormons, rich folks, and, perhaps most curiously, seniors.

Once again tonight, voters 65 and older were among Romney’s staunchest supporters. They were his best cohort in Vermont and Virginia. They may have saved his bacon in Ohio, where he walloped Santorum in this age bracket by 15 points. Even in Santorum-happy Tennessee, the seniors went Romney.

But wait! There’s more: Seniors were key to Romney’s Michigan victory. They were his biggest backers in Nevada and, more importantly, his electoral powerhouse of Florida. They were the only age bracket he won in Iowa.

As for life beyond the primary, senior voters are the only age group in which Romney is outpolling President Obama.

The bulk of the American electorate may not consider Mittens scintillating, but the 65-plus set clearly finds him pretty darn charming.

Which begs the obvious question: Why?

A handful of reasons, say the experts.

For starters, Romney focuses on the things seniors care about, says Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. “He’s not emphasizing the social issues; he’s emphasizing the economy, which is a broader concern among older people.”

Romney’s overall political position is also more in tune with senior voters, says James Thurber, a professor of political science at American University. “He is popular with them because they are generally more moderate in terms of political attitudes, and the other candidates seem to be lurching further and further to the right.”

While the conventional wisdom is that older voters are more conservative than their juniors, says Gans, “they are not more conservative around social issues.”

This ties in with Romney’s non-flamboyant political persona. “In this particular field, he comes across as the grownup,” says Gans. “Older people don’t normally vote for firebrands.”

“Senior voters want a candidate who can remain steady, and that is probably Mitt Romney’s defining characteristic,” says Michael Wissott, a senior strategist with the communications and image management firm Luntz Global.

Flip-flop Mitt? Steady? Forget specific issues, says Wissot, whose firm (headed by long-time GOP spin doctor Frank Luntz) has conducted focus groups throughout the primary. “The consistency and steadiness I’m talking about has more to do with his overall disposition.”

While Romney lacks sparkle, the rest of the Republican field has been defined by its volatility—crests and crashes and widespread chaos.  “Especially among seniors, voters don’t want someone erratic,” says Wissot. “They don’t want someone who is all over the place.” Romney’s slow, steady, consistent plod forward, he says, “creates a certain sense of calmness.”

Even the hopelessly awkward, cheesy stuff Romney does on the trail plays better with older voters than with the younger crowd, asserts Wissot. “It doesn’t hurt him to be out there singing ‘America the Beautiful,’ and it doesn’t matter that he’s off key. Seniors love hearing it.”

Put in pop cultural terms: Think of Romney as the straight, earnest, senior-friendly Jay Leno to Rick Santorum’s younger, edgier (albeit in a different direction) Conan O’Brien.

Which brings us back to the dull, unglamorous asset of perceived electability. “Younger voters tend to vote on ideology,” says Wissott. “Seniors side with the candidate they consider most electable.” They are, he asserts, pragmatic, savvy, experienced voters. “You’re talking about people who remember voting for Barry Goldwater! They’ve seen candidates from all ends of the spectrum and they know what kind of candidate they truly believe is capable of winning a general election and that’s how they tend to vote.”

Bottom line, quips Gans, older voters see in Romney something they don’t see in the rest of the field: “Sanity.”