WASHINGTON — Older Americans are gaining wider influence in elections. Census numbers show that for the first time, Americans 45 and older make up a majority of the voting-age population.
This comes as the U.S. debates efforts to cut back Medicare and other benefits for seniors.
As a whole, the numbers point to a rapidly graying nation driven largely by the nation's 78 million baby boomers, who are between the ages of 46 and 65 and looking ahead to retirement. This could be a test of whether politicians who favor reducing services get hurt politically.
There are 119 million people 45 and older who make up 51 percent of the voting-age population.
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The findings, based on the latest publicly available government data, offer a preview of trends that will be detailed in the next round of 2010 census results being released this month that focus on age, household relationships and racial subgroups.
"The center of American politics gets older," said E. Mark Braden, a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee who now advises elected officials and state legislatures. "Given the current fiscal concerns, it's going to be a test case whether Republicans or Democrats can talk about entitlement reform without getting killed" politically.
Based on actual election turnout, which is higher for older Americans, census data show that baby boomers and seniors ages 45 and older represent about 60 percent of voters in national races, judging by the 2008 presidential race. Nearly 1 out of 2 voters is 50 or older.
"Boomers have now crossed the line between thinking about Medicare and Social Security as an issue for their parents, to being worried about it for themselves," said William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution who did a broad analysis of available census data. "More so than their parents, boomers face increasing costs of medical care and the risk that government pensions will need to substitute for downturns in their 401(k) plans.
"Their interest in the viability of Medicare should be priority one for politicians seeking office, especially in aging regions of the country," he said.