The future of Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly and disabled,… (Christian Murdock/AP )
Voters in three critical swing states broadly oppose the far-reaching changes to Medicare associated with the Republican presidential ticket and, by big margins, prefer President Obama to handle the issue, according to new state polls by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
For seniors in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, Medicare rivals the economy as a top voting issue. And by majorities topping 70 percent, seniors say they prefer to keep Medicare as a program with guaranteed benefits, rather than moving to a system in which the government gives recipients fixed payments to buy coverage from private insurers or traditional Medicare, as Romney advocates.
Among all voters, the desire to keep the system as it is peaks at 65 percent in Florida, where more than one in five Americans who voted in 2008 were age 65 and older.
Generally, the more voters focus on Medicare, the more likely they are to support Obama’s bid for reelection.
The future of Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly and disabled, has become a flash point in the campaign since Romney’s selection last month of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, as his running mate. The choice of Ryan — who wrote a proposal that would move Medicare toward vouchers as part of an overall attempt to curb the deficit — is considered a bold and politically risky move, given Medicare’s popularity.
Now, the challenges for Romney in the aftermath of the Ryan selection are becoming clear.
Although Obama faces his own problems among voters over health care, the fresh attention to Medicare appears to be blunting the negative fallout from his 2010 health-care reform law.
Romney has revived a Republican line of attack from the midterm elections that year, charging that Obama “raided” Medicare “to pay for Obamacare.” The criticism refers to $716 billion in cuts to Medicare in the health-care law — cuts that Ryan previously supported but has since said he would undo.
The law, which the Supreme Court largely upheld, remains controversial and is, according to an analysis of these new poll results, a drag on Obama’s reelection prospects. In Florida and Ohio, more voters have “strongly unfavorable” than “strongly favorable” impressions of the legislation.
But voter distaste for a Ryan-like plan may insulate Obama from the political fallout. It appears that Medicare may have become a winning issue — for Obama.
In Virginia, Cheryl Schaffer, 64, said she will vote for Obama in part because of his differences with Romney on Medicare.
“I’m hoping to have Medicare in six months,” said Schaffer, a Richmond retiree. “I don’t like what Romney is going to do to it.”
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the poll findings were “irrelevant” because the question on the type of Medicare overhaul that Romney advocates did not accurately describe the plan. In an e-mail, she said that respondents were not told that Romney has promised not to change Medicare for Americans older than 55.
She said it also was misleading to present voters with the alternative of leaving Medicare as is, “considering the program will go bankrupt.”
“Words matter,” Saul said. “None of those descriptors were in the question, and that wildly changed the understanding of Governor Romney’s plan.”
The poll question did not mention Romney or Ryan by name.
Adam Fletcher, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said, “Seniors recognize the stark choice they face on Medicare in this election because it couldn’t be clearer.”
“The unpopularity of the Romney-Ryan Medicare voucher plan is an opportunity for the president to close the gap among seniors as well as other demographics,” he said.
Medicare covers about 49 million seniors and disabled people and is an open-ended entitlement — it pays for all covered benefits. Its $549 billion in annual expenditures comes from taxpayer money and premiums paid by beneficiaries.
Although seniors nationwide dislike the idea of moving away from the current system, their opposition is even more pronounced in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, where both candidates have spent weeks saturating the airwaves with Medicare attack ads.
Obama hammers the Ryan plan continually, telling supporters at a campaign event in Milwaukee last Saturday that Romney and Ryan would “turn Medicare into a voucher program in order to pay for tax cuts for the very wealthy.”
Looking across the three states, voters age 50 and older tilt toward Obama on Medicare and split on which candidate will receive their vote, with 50 percent siding with the president and 45 percent with Romney.
This spells trouble for Romney, said Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard University who monitors public views on health-care issues.