Countdown to the Election: Gore-Bush on Social Security, Medicare

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Six days before the November 7 presidential election, likely voters find themselves evenly divided on a number of important issues affecting the country, according to a recent Rasmussen Research/Portrait of America poll. On issues affecting Americans' retirement security and health care, the poll reveals that voters are split over which candidate, Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush, shares their vision of the future.

It's no small matter, because both programs are headed towards financial crisis in the decades to come, according to Social Security and Medicare trustees. And Gore and Bush have offered fundamentally different blueprints, especially on Social Security, for bridging the gap between incoming tax dollars and outgoing benefits. The biggest difference between the two plans is Bush's desire to let younger workers devote part of their Social Security contributions to personal retirement accounts.

Among all likely voters polled recently by Rasmussen's Portrait of America, Bush held a slight edge on Gore, 47-42 percent on the issue of Social Security. Likely voters were asked which candidate's views most closely matched their own. "A majority of voters do tend to agree with the notion that workers should be free to opt out of the system," said pollster Scott Rasmussen.

That's progress for Bush, compared to two summer polls of likely voters for and Fox News, respectively, that showed a statistical dead heat on the Social Security issue.

On Medicare, the Rasmussen poll showed Bush with a lead of a single point, 44-43 percent over Gore.
However, among those likely voters who rate Social Security and Medicare as "very important" issues, Gore has a huge advantage, trouncing Bush by more than 20 points in each case.

Why is that? Because voters who care most about the two programs for the elderly are, not surprisingly, the elderly, who like the status quo, according to Rasmussen. "There is a definite split on those issues between retirees and younger workers," said Rasmussen, who noted that age was the single biggest determining factor on this issue. "It's almost unfair to talk about anything else; there's no other gap that's anywhere near as close on this," he said.

"People who are most into [the] Social Security issue don't want change, and therefore they agree with Gore, and so he really shores up a good chunk of the electorate with that position," Rasmussen explained. "I could also argue that the issue has helped Bush with younger workers [who are] are saying, 'this doesn't look like a good deal to me, so I want something different.'" As a result, Rasmussen predicted, Bush may get help from those younger voters, while seniors may deliver Florida for Gore.

Rasmussen also gave some credit to the media for helping Bush on Social Security when the candidate began promoting his plan back in the spring. "Even people who disagreed with him ... the media tended to give him credit for thinking big on the issue and being bold. It helped his overall image to make that proposal," said Rasmussen.

Medicare is a little different, according to Rasmussen, because "there's not a clear sense [among voters] of what can be done" and voters "zone out" on the details. Right now, it's enough that both candidates have a plan.

"There is real frustration with specific aspects of Medicare, but the problem that almost everyone runs into, Republicans and Democrats alike, when they try to talk about reforming health care is that most Americans are at least reasonably happy with the health coverage they have," Rasmussen explained.

"What that means is that when you talk about changes, you can't talk about any change that would disrupt the status quo," said Rasmussen. "So you can talk about what is the best way to change the Medicare program on this prescription drug coverage, as long as you can talk about that without threatening the existing coverage that most people have," he added.

"What Gov. Bush did very well in this campaign, instead of arguing against Al Gore's proposal, he came up with a plan of his own," said Rasmussen. "The Democrats were very unhappy with it and said it wasn't as good and tried to make that case, but by the minute you got lost in those details, from a political point of view, Bush had come out on top," he said. "Bush acknowledged the need to do something in this area."

"When you see the overall numbers coming up pretty even on something like Medicare, that means that George Bush has convinced people he's not the devil, he doesn't have horns, he's not this mean spirited person," Rasmussen said.

In the end, it's vision that wins the election, not the details, according to Rasmussen. "As you're talking about the issues, people don't expect any of these specific proposals to be enacted the way the candidates talk about them. They're simply looking for clues," he said.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, disagrees both with Rasmussen's data and conclusions. Though Mellman does not release his polling data to the public, he says his polls show Gore solidly ahead on Social Security and Medicare issues among all age groups.

"There is no question that older people who care more about Social Security are even more inclined to trust Democrats on that issue," said Mellman. "It's not the case, at least in our data, that younger people trust Republicans more, not at all," he said.

"This subject has been polled by a lot of people, and most of the polls would say that Gore has a meaningful lead over Bush on Social Security and an even bigger lead among older people," Mellman continued. "Over the years, the Republicans have made some inroads on these issues, but it's still a Democratic issue. People understand that Democrats were the ones to institute Social Security and Medicare, over the objections of Republicans, and Republicans have consistently tried to cut those programs," he explained.

Chuck Blahous, Executive Director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, however, echoed some of Rasmussen's analysis on Social Security. Blahous heads a coalition of organizations that, like Bush, favor a plan to allow younger workers the opportunity to divert part of their Social Security contributions to personal retirement accounts.

"People who feel most passionately about the program are the ones who most value the program" as it is, according to Blahous, explaining the Gore lead on Social Security.

"Bush has clearly won the substantive debate," said Blahous. "Whether he's won the battle of perception is an open question, but any time a reformer pulls even on these issues, it's huge. This is an historic step forward," he said.

Blahous believes that as voters learn about Social Security's uncertain future, they are less likely to have confidence in Gore's solutions.

"There's an instinctive recognition that something is wrong [with Social Security]," Blahous explained. "People know society is getting older, and they know that government hasn't put money away for retirement. The vice president is saying all we have to do is change the books," but that won't solve the problem, said Blahous.
See Countdown to the Election: Gore, Bush on the Economy