In case there was any doubt about it, the current presidential political furor over who will cut Medicare more proves the important role elderly voters play in American politics. It also proves both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know that while the mantra of the election is improving the economy and reducing the federal debt, political points are still won by promising benefits.
"We surveyed voters 50-plus and we found not surprisingly that they are very worried about economic issues, and for them that means looking ahead to retirement security and the security of Medicare and Social Security," says Tiffany Lundquist, AARP spokeswoman. "Those programs have become even more important to them."
That explains why the Romney campaign has launched a television advertisement that highlights Obama's cut of $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for the new healthcare law. The ad, however, implies the cuts come at the expense of enrollees, but instead the cuts are predominately made in reduced reimbursements to hospitals.
"So now the money you paid for your guaranteed healthcare is going to a massive new government program that's not for you," a narrator in the Romney ad says. "The Romney-Ryan plan protects Medicare benefits for today's seniors and strengthens the program for the next generation."
A rival Web advertisement from the Obama campaign seeks to counter the Romney ad by highlighting the budget plan penned by Republican Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate.
"The replacement of Medicare by a voucher system would in the end mean that tens of millions of older Americans would not be able to afford essential healthcare," says Paul Krugman, an economist at Princeton University, in the ad, which also features news reports analyzing the Ryan Medicare proposal.
An AARP survey released last week shows members split on who they support in the race--45 percent each for Obama and Romney, with 10 percent undecided. The seniors are disappointed in both candidates for failing to address how they will strengthen Social Security and Medicare specifically, according to a release accompanying the survey results.
"The lesson for both candidates is that, while jobs and employment remains a pressing issue, voters over 50 are focused even more on the challenge of finding a secure retirement," said Guy Molyneux, a pollster at Hart Research Associates, in the release. "Neither candidate is addressing this issue in a satisfactory way and the one who does could reap significant political benefits."
Lundquist says the AARP is working overtime to provide objective analysis so seniors can make informed decisions.
"What we hear from our members and other older Americans is that they want to get past those 30-second sound bites," she says. "They really want to know the facts about what the proposals mean and how it will play out."
Davis Houck, a communications professor at Florida State University, says whichever candidate succeeds in defining the issue first will have the edge with voters.
"You don't have to be a political strategist to know that Florida is going to play very loudly with the seniors there, that it's best to define this issue as 'we're not going to cut your Medicare' or Social Security and that seniors will be safe," says Houck. "By all accounts, Florida is going to be super-tight again and whoever defines the issue in Florida will probably win the state."
The issue has legs even beyond the state of Florida, as older voters turn out in greater numbers than their youthful counterparts across the country.
Just 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 reported voting in the 2008 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 70 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.