Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first question in the first nationally televised Republican presidential primary debate was why he was so unpopular in Louisiana.
Jindal gave his pat answer about his willingness to make tough decisions that some people don’t like.
Whatever, says Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat. Statistics are succinct: Jindal lost the old folks.
Pinsonat’s semiannual polls charted the decline from 2009, when about two-thirds of the state’s voters surveyed thought he was doing a fine job, to 2013, when those numbers first dropped 30 percentage points to 37.8 percent.
Jindal lost about a third of his support among white voters older than 65, the polls showed. As Jindal had made little effort to reach out to African-Americans, moderates and other political demographics, his loss of this key Republican-leaning group made the collapse look cataclysmic, Pinsonat said.
Jindal’s “tough decisions” included firing the head of the Office of Elderly Affairs for not toeing the administration’s line during legislative testimony (the job has remained empty for three years) and freezing state funds for programs that help transport, feed and check the health of elderly people. He hacked away at health care and then traveled to other states to brag about how he reduced prolific spending at home.
“His message was insulting. They (seniors) thought he showed insensitivity,” said Pinsonat, who is 72.
Gallup polls last year showed that in America’s bitter political atmosphere, party preferences are largely polarized along racial lines and that 85 percent of those over 65 are white (54 percent in ages 18 to 29 years old). Several studies — from the Pew Research Center to Harvard University to the Cook Political Report — show that this demographic solidly votes Republican.
And vote they do.
CNN exit polls after last fall’s U.S. Senate primary found that 55 percent of Louisiana voters casting ballots were older than 50 — including the 21 percent older than 65 — and 58 percent of those ballots went to Republican candidates Rob Maness and the eventual winner, Bill Cassidy. Incumbent Mary Landrieu racked up with the under-30 crowd, but they accounted for only 13 percent of the turnout.
Denise Bottcher, interim executive director at AARP Louisiana, says this state is experiencing a titanic demographic shift. “We’re reaching a point where people 65 and older will outnumber children 15 and younger for the first time in history,” she said, adding that within four years, about 1.1 million Louisiana residents will be seniors. This will create a new set of expectations and alter the rhythm of daily life.
Even as Q&A sessions at GOP events usually feature demands that candidates identify specific agencies they would shut down and specific ideas to reduce the size of government, at least three of the four gubernatorial candidates champion the idea of creating a new state government agency — one to coordinate programs to help the elderly the way one state agency does for the poor and another does for rich oil companies. It’s one of the few issues for which the candidates articulate their ideas with specifics.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, noted that a proposal to create a 21st government department failed at the polls last fall. (Louisiana’s Constitution limits the number of departments to 20). He would merge the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which immediately would begin addressing elderly concerns. Otherwise, the new department will have to wait for another election cycle.
Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, R-Breaux Bridge, agrees with creating a new agency but says merging it with another department would split the focus.
Amite Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards says creating a department for the elderly is a key first step. But in the meantime, the governor has to personally take charge of coordinating the services now spread across several agencies and ensure seniors know about how to access those resources.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie, said in a prepared statement: “My record of fighting for seniors is clear — including fighting to create a lock box to protect the Social Security Trust Fund from being raided; fighting cuts to Medicare and Medicare Advantage; pushing for cheaper, safe prescription drugs through reimportation and generics; and my work on individual cases that’s resulted in thousands of Louisianians finally getting their improperly denied Social Security benefits.”
London-based HelpAge International, a coalition of advocacy organizations, earlier this year ranked Louisiana as the second worst state in America to grow old in. HelpAge based its rankings on factors such as low median household income, high percentage of disabilities and poor health care.
“The reason,” said Angelle, who had served as one of Jindal’s closest advisers, “is that we do not have a champion.”
Email Mark Ballard, editor of Capitol news bureau, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB.