The senior vote matters, big-time. Why? Because there are lots of older Americans - more than 40 million in the 65-plus bracket - and they turn out in large numbers on Election Day.
Right now, the question is how they will vote. For some time, polls showed Romney decisively leading among older Americans, but no more.
“Support for Romney among Americans age 60 and older has crumbled, from a 20-point lead over Democratic President Barack Obama to less than 4 points,” Reuters reports, and the implications are enormous. “If Romney loses seniors, he loses this election, period,” one analyst told the news service.
What’s driving this shift, and can social media help us understand what older voters are thinking?
If that strikes you as an absurd question - seniors don’t tweet, do they? - think again. More than half of Americans 65 and older are on the internet, and 34% of those who are use social networks, according to a study by Pew Internet.
Seniors are still less engaged with social technologies than other age groups (86% of internet users 18-29 use social platforms). But when it comes to politics, their presence has an outsized significance, because they vote heavily. A social comment about the election is more meaningful if it comes from a likely voter.
Two recent social moments offer a revealing glimpse of what seniors are thinking. Bluefin Labs, home of The Crowdwire, tracks and analyzes the social conversation on about 600 major brands, and compiles a list of the most talked-about brands for a regular feature in Ad Age magazine. On the current list (see above), AARP comes in at Number 6. An advocacy organization for older people trending right up there with Starbucks and H & M - what gives?
It’s about politics. Speaking at an AARP conference in New Orleans, Romney running-mate Paul Ryan called for the repeal of the Obama health-care program, and was loudly booed. The social networks lit up, due partly to wide TV coverage of the story. On the political shows, liberal commentators portrayed it as a campaign stumble, noting that the crowd cheered for Obama’s remarks (delivered via video screen) on the same subject. However, CBS News and other outlets noted that, in addition to the boos, Ryan drew applause when he introduced his mother and when he talked about the need to cut the deficit.
To make sense of the social response, we went to the data. First, we looked at who made the comments, and found that among the groups commenting most frequently were people who watch network and cable news shows, and those who had posted previously about health-insurance - both pointing to an older demographic. We then isolated comments specifically about Ryan’s Obamacare remarks and found that 43% were anti-Ryan, 22% were pro-Ryan, and 35% were neutral or unclassifiable.*
The other striking moment was Sunday’s 60 Minutes broadcast, featuring interviews with both Obama and Romney, which drew an unusually large social response for that show. Over the last year, public social commentary about 60 Minutes has averaged about 2,700 comments per show. That’s low for a show that routinely draws more than 12 million viewers, and may be related to the fact that the median viewer age is 60. Though seniors are on social media in growing numbers, they don’t match the comment volume of younger people.
For this show, however, there were about 33,000 comments - more than ten times the norm. Who was making them? The average viewer age for this broadcast was 58, slightly younger than normal but still on the senior side. That doesn’t mean all the comments came from older people, but it suggests a fair number did. We confirmed this by examining Bluefin Labs data about those who made the remarks. Among the most frequent commenters were married people, grandparents, viewers of both network and cable news shows, and fans of the game show Jeopardy! Definitely an older crowd.
As for the content, isolating remarks that were about specific issues (as opposed to general mentions of the show), we found that the candidates’ views about health care and taxes drew the most response, accounting for 26% of all commentary on the show. As for the opinions expressed in the comments, 54% were anti-Romney, while just 4% were anti-Obama. Comments clearly supporting either candidate accounted for less than 10% of the total, and the remainder was neutral or unclassifiable.
In short, seniors may not dominate social media, but the social conversation mirrors what the pollsters are finding: Health care matters to these voters, and that could be bad news for Romney. “Among seniors,” The Washington Post reports, “the issue rivals the economy as a top voting issue, undercutting Romney’s appeal in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Generally, the more voters focus on Medicare, the more likely they are to support the president’s bid for reelection.”
*Figures reflect public comments on Twitter and Facebook.