(Bloomberg) — Bernie Sanders is counting on young voters turning out to win next Monday’s Iowa caucuses. But by putting an emphasis on his plans for Social Security, the Vermont senator isn’t ceding older Democrats to Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has been playing up in speeches, interviews and television ads his commitment to lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes for top earners as a way to raise benefits.
While Clinton insists she’s no less committed to protecting the Social Security retirement program and and the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, Sanders is making the case that there’s a difference between the two of them for voters worried about their Social Security benefits.
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“Every sort of older person who decides they’re going to be for Bernie Sanders means we’re taking a lot more support away from Hillary Clinton,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist who’s advising Sanders. “It’s a very effective way for us to bring people into his camp, and I think it has had an impact.”
Sanders is facing an age gap among voters. While likely Democratic caucus participants ages 18 to 44 back Sanders by almost a 4-to-1 margin, Clinton is ahead 53 percent to 39 percent among voters 45 to 64 years old and 71 percent to 21 percent among voters over 65, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.
Sanders said Thursday he needs the people packing his rallies to show up at caucuses in large numbers if he is to win Iowa. But older voters historically turn out in higher proportions than younger ones. In the 2012 general election in Iowa, 85 percent of registered voters 65 and older — the main beneficiaries of Social Security — cast ballots compared with about half of voters under 35, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.
Sanders wants to keep the cap on taxable income for Social Security at the current $118,500 a year for those earning up to $250,000 annually, and apply the levy on all earnings above that amount. It would mean the top wage earners would pay more to extend the solvency of the program and expand benefits by $1,300 a year for people making less than $16,000, he said.
“That is my view, to the best of my knowledge, that is not Secretary Clinton’s view,” Sanders told reporters on Tuesday after a campaign stop in Des Moines. “And I would hope that she would join me in standing up with the millions of seniors and disabled vets who are struggling on inadequate Social Security benefits.”
Clinton also has talked about preserving Social Security by asking the wealthiest to pay more, including possibly taxing some income above the current cap, though she has not provided specifics. Those are the sorts of details any president would have to work out with Congress, the former secretary of state has said.
“I think it’s a mistake to go in and say, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ sort of in effect hand them your negotiating position,” Clinton told the Des Moines Register editorial board earlier this month. “I think it’s smarter to say, ‘Look, I’m never going to go along with your privatization plan. I will not go along with raising the retirement age as the answer to everything that ails Social Security, but I will work with you to try to figure out how we help those people who are most disadvantaged.”’
To some extent, the distinction between the two candidates in the issue is a matter of semantics, said Rachel Paine Caufield, associate director of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines.
“I’m not sure that difference is going to be a make-or-break decision point for a lot of voters,” Caufield said.