Despite high older voter turnout in Iowa caucus, Social Security topic still remains on back burner

Personal finance

A caucus worker checks in voters at a caucus site at the Horizon Events Center in Clive, Iowa, on Jan. 15, 2024.
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump won the Iowa caucus by a landslide, due in part to strong turnout by older voters.

“While the turnout overall was low, 70% of caucusgoers who turned out were over the age of 50, which is unprecedented,” said Brad Anderson, Iowa state director at the AARP.

Historically, the turnout at Iowa caucuses tends to hover around 60% and traditionally skews older, he said.

“Given the weather, I think people are genuinely surprised at how robust the older caucusgoer turnout was,” Anderson said.

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An Iowa poll from the summer showed Trump up substantially, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley tied. The final result showed support for the candidates “never shifted,” Anderson noted.

“The candidates would have been better served by focusing much more heavily on pocketbook issues that are important to older Iowans like Social Security, the cost of prescription drugs and inflation,” Anderson said. Instead, their advertising in the state largely focused on the economy and immigration.

New Hampshire voters are set to decide the state’s primary this week. However, the candidates have dropped to two after DeSantis suspended his campaign over the weekend and endorsed Trump.

To the candidates’ credit, they did not dodge the issue of Social Security when asked, Anderson said.

“They did talk about the issue, they did take it head on when asked in forums and they did agree to talk to us on the record on that issue,” Anderson said.

Trump, who has not debated fellow candidates, discussed Social Security in a December town hall.

“You don’t have to touch Social Security,” Trump said. “We have money laying in the ground far greater than anything we can do by hurting senior citizens with their Social Security.”

On the campaign trail, DeSantis has also said he would not “mess with” Social Security, most recently calling the benefits that are earned by paying payroll taxes “a promise” that “needs to be fulfilled,” in a January debate on CNN.

Haley, however, suggested raising the retirement age for younger individuals in their 20s, an idea DeSantis rejected.

“Social Security is going to go bankrupt in 10 years,” Haley said. “We have to keep our promises to seniors, but we also can’t put our head in the sand.”

The funds on which the Social Security Administration relies on to pay benefits have a projected depletion date of 2034. If nothing is done by that time, benefit cuts are certain.

Social Security’s actuaries anticipate just 80% of overall benefits may be payable at that time.

The shortfall for retirees may be more than 20%, based on the status of the fund dedicated to those benefits.

The “no changes needed” approach has frustrated retirement experts including Nevin Adams, a retiree who formerly served as chief content officer at the American Retirement Association.

“Something will have to give,” Adams said, such as changing how much taxes are withheld from workers’ paychecks or raising the retirement age.

“There’s not enough money, the system is not generating enough to keep that promise going,” Adams said.

While politicians may vow to protect current beneficiaries from seeing cuts, now is the time to have a conversation about the program for the sake of future generations, he said.

“It’s an acknowledgment that there is an issue here that really does need to be addressed,” Adams said.

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