11:01pm

Mon January 30, 2012
Election 2012

The Golden Age: Florida Primary Centers On Seniors

Just how important is the senior vote in Florida?

Nearly one in five Floridians is retired. And a survey conducted by AARP predicts that as many as 60 percent of those who cast ballots in Tuesday's Republican primary — 6 out of 10 voters — will be retirees.

If that number is surprising, AARP Florida director Jeff Johnson says it helps to remember that primaries typically have a low turnout.

"When you think about who votes in primaries, they tend to be the most dedicated, loyal voters — the people who vote in every election," Johnson says. "And for years, politicians and political operatives have known that the older you are, the more likely you are to be one of those regular voters."

In Pensacola this weekend, retiree Catherine Murphy came out to a rally for her candidate, Mitt Romney. The most important issue for her: the economy.

"[There are] too many people who don't have the income from their work. My own son, for one," she says.

Murphy says her son is the father of two young children and unable to work after contracting Lyme disease.

Florida is struggling with unemployment higher than the national average and a still dismal housing market, with hundreds of thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan McManus says retirees in the Sunshine State tend to be a little wealthier than retirees elsewhere. But this economic downturn, she says, has had a big impact on Florida's senior citizens.

"They're terribly worried about the economic future of their children and grandchildren," McManus says. "Because many retirees in Florida have had to step up to the plate and help their adult children make their house notes or help them send their kids to college."

In surveys and interviews she conducted with groups of senior voters in Florida, McManus says she finds many are also worried about the nation's debt.

"They're also very likely to say, 'Let's reduce the deficit. But, by the way, let's not mess too much with Medicare and Social Security,'" she says.

Retiree Catherine Murphy says changes might be needed to strengthen Medicare and Social Security, but she's leery about the possibility of cuts.

"I'm one of those old citizens, but people are depending on that," she says. "They could reduce in other areas ... [but] this is a necessary expenditure."

Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich support making reforms to Medicare. Both propose giving the elderly the option to stay in traditional Medicare or move into private insurance plans.

Gingrich has also talked about giving younger workers the choice of opting out of Social Security and setting up 401(k)-type retirement accounts. Romney would try to strengthen Social Security by raising the retirement age and slowing the growth in benefits for wealthier retirees.

But you haven't heard much about those proposals as the candidates campaigned over the past week in Florida. Moderators didn't bring them up in the two debates, and Jeff Johnson of AARP says the candidates don't raise them because they're worried whatever they say could be used against them in the primary or general election.

"It is a perilous course for them to raise these issues," Johnson says. The reality, he says, is that whoever is elected president will have to deal with the issues of Social Security and Medicare and their long-term future. "To not know before the election what the candidates think of those issues is really troubling."

Romney and Gingrich — the two Republican front-runners — have campaigned in The Villages, the central Florida community that's home to nearly 80,000 retirees.

At the government center there a few days ago, Dana Carter cast his ballot in early voting for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He says he also is concerned about the future of both Medicare and Social Security, not for himself, but for the next generation.

"I worry about the people who are coming up behind us," Carter says. "Because, unless [politicians] can change something, unless they stop stealing from the Social Security trust fund, there won't be anything for those younger people."

The message from Florida retirees: fix Social Security and Medicare, but do it without making cuts to programs many here depend on.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.