As candidates for office from Congress to the statehouse plot their campaign strategy for the 2022 elections, they would do well to make sure they address the concerns of women age 50 and older, based on the findings of a new AARP public opinion survey. The results show that the vast majority of these likely voters have not made up their minds who they will cast their ballot for.
“We know from past elections that women 50-plus turn out in big numbers, making them a very powerful voting bloc,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer. “So it’s critical for our elected leaders and candidates to understand their concerns and priorities heading into November’s election.” Turnout among older Americans has long been higher than for any other age group. In the last midterm elections, in 2018, 56 percent of voters ages 45 to 59 and 66 percent of voters age 60 and older cast ballots. That compares to a 33 percent turnout among those ages 18 to 29.
“I think the findings say that the votes of women are weighing their decisions carefully and haven’t made up their minds,” says Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, one of four who produced the survey for AARP. The team also included GOP pollster Chris Matthews and Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Margie Omero. “It’s all about the rising cost of living,” Lake says of the main issue women (46 percent) reported being worried about. “And that’s particularly salient for these older women, who are concerned about keeping up with the basics and making ends meet.”
The other top issues women voters expressed concern about were the lack of unity and the political divisions in the country (35 percent), government spending (20 percent) and COVID-19 (20 percent).
This survey is the first in AARP’s “She’s the Difference” voter research project, which will continue through the 2022 election season. The online and telephone poll was conducted from Feb. 18 to March 3 among 1,836 likely voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent. Here’s a look at some key findings of the survey.
Women 50+ most concerned about rising costs
Concern about the economy is not an abstract theory to the 50-plus women who responded to AARP’s poll. “It reflects their reality,” says Lake. “It’s kitchen table economics. Every day, they are confronted with higher prices for almost everything they’re buying. This is their real-life experience every moment of every day.”
Soltis Anderson says the last time the economy was this predominant an issue was during the Great Recession of 2007–2009. A big difference, she says, was that back then Americans were most concerned about getting a job, losing a job or keeping a job. “Today if you want to get a job, there are plenty of openings,” Soltis Anderson says. “But is it going to be a job that will keep up with the incredible expense of just getting by these days?”
The rising cost of living was the top issue across all ethnic groups — Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), and American Indian/Alaskan Natives — with the exception of Black women. Forty-five percent of those respondents said racism was their top issue and 42 percent said the cost of living.
The survey also found that 50-plus women are split on whether the economy is working for them personally and that they are not optimistic about the current economic situation getting better anytime soon. Forty-eight percent of respondents said the economy is working well for them while 52 percent said it is not. And only 13 percent said they expected their own financial situation to get better in the next year, while 86 percent expected it to either get worse (39 percent) or stay the same (47 percent). Black women were more optimistic than 50-plus women overall: 33 percent saying they expect their financial situation will improve in the coming year.
Women 50+ still making up their minds
The finding that only 17 percent of 50-plus women have decided who they will vote for “tells me that neither party can take for granted that these voters are with them and neither party should write these voters off as unwinnable,” says Soltis Anderson. Lake says the large undecided group means that “people are really uncertain. They’re really disturbed that nothing is getting done, and I think they don’t know what direction to go in.”
About one-fifth of these voters said they don’t expect to make up their minds until several days before the November election. The survey also reveals that more Republican women (22 percent) than Democrats (14 percent) have already decided who they’ll vote for. But by far the largest undecided group is independent women voters. Only 7 percent said they know who they will vote for.
The survey also indicates that candidates from both major parties will have their work cut out for them when it comes to these independent voters. Asked how they would vote if the election for Congress were held today, a third of independent women 50-plus said they wanted to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat. “That’s pretty dramatic,” says Lake.
They want leaders to get things done
“Democrats, independents and Republicans all overwhelmingly want people to work together to get things done,” says Lake, who adds that they believe that the polarization in the country “gets in the way of getting things done.”
The poll did find that 40 percent of Republican women compared to 21 percent of Democratic women prefer a politician who consistently fights for their values, even if that often means a particular problem doesn’t get solved. “Conventional wisdom is that this notion of fighting for someone like me is a powerful theme in the GOP,” Soltis Anderson says, “but I don’t think it’s the only thing that Republican voters are looking for.” In addition to the 67 percent of women 50-plus who say they would prefer a politician who is willing to work together to get things done even if it means sometimes compromising on their values, 35 percent consider the lack of unity and the political divisions in the country as the second most important issue we face — just below the rising cost of living. On that question, Republican and Democratic women are in agreement, while independent 50-plus women voters feel even more strongly that such divisions are a major issue. Hispanic women, however, view this issue differently. By a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent, these voters prefer a politician who consistently fights for their values.
COVID effects seen as economic
The AARP survey was taken as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were declining sharply. That, combined with the availability of vaccinations and the relaxation of mask requirements, has shifted the focus of many people’s thinking about COVID to its economic impact. “The way it’s most present in their daily lives are the economic disruptions that are still persisting,” Soltis Anderson says. This finding, says Lake, is another example of how women 50-plus are most concerned about their real-life experiences. In addition to shortages in stores, 38 percent of these voters said they have either not gotten or postponed medical care or a health screening because of COVID, and 37 percent said they have grieved the loss of a loved one.
Nearly half say leaders failing on rising prices
“Americans being frustrated with politicians is nothing new,” says Soltis Anderson, but this level of dissatisfaction “often signals they are going to be much more willing to participate [in this year’s election] than being apathetic.”
For example, 83 percent of women respondents gave elected officials either an F (43 percent) or a D (40 percent) for how they’re dealing with prices that are rising faster than incomes. Thirty-eight percent gave politicians a failing grade on solving the wage gap between rich and poor, and 33 percent gave them a D. Respondents were asked about 18 issues, from Medicare to climate change to caregiving to crime. Across all issues, the percentage of elected officials that received A’s were in the low single digits, with both protecting voting access and Medicare coverage earning A’s from just 4 percent of respondents. Lawmakers received even fewer A’s on the other issues. Lake called the high level of failing grades surprising. “That’s a pretty serious level of alienation,” she says.
Women wish respect, equality and affordability for future generations
The answers to this question are related to the concerns women 50-plus have about how divided the country is, Lake says. “Rather than just monetary well-being, they’re trying to look at setting a sounder foundation for the next generation.”
Also among these voters’ top hopes and dreams for the next generation were that all people are able to afford the health care they need (32 percent), that nobody lives in fear of violence (29 percent) and that no one goes hungry (21 percent). “We consistently see in the research that older Americans in particular are worried that the world younger Americans will inherit is not going to be a hospitable place,” Soltis Anderson says.
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.