It's a lesson both political parties have learned the hard way about the potent older-than-65 voting bloc, and it's one that Republicans are working to turn to their advantage in the high-stakes fight over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The tactic has left Democrats on the defensive, in the unenviable position of trying to assuage the fears of a segment of the population that opposed Obama in the last election and that polls show is disproportionately against the party's health care plans.
So this past week, Republicans seized upon seniors' concerns about losing benefits and high-quality care as their own cause celebre. GOP leaders, who for decades have called for scaling back Medicare and just this spring proposed eventually ending it, now are arguing that Democrats' proposed prescriptions for remaking the costly and inefficient U.S. health care system would lead to benefit cuts for the elderly.
"The irony is not lost on me. ... That's the way Washington works sometimes," says Bill Novelli, who as the former head of the powerful seniors' lobby AARP has seen both parties on both sides of the fight to activate elderly voters' anger.
This time it's Democrats - the party that created Medicare as well as the nation's other social programs - who have found themselves scrambling to prove they are on the side of seniors.
"Democrats have spent the past 40 years protecting America's seniors," protested Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as his staff peppered reporters with examples of past GOP votes that Democrats say hurt the elderly. "The other side's insistence on spreading fear above all else is what will truly hurt our seniors."
There are good reasons for the intense partisan competition for seniors' perceptions. And there's every indication that whoever can persuade them that Medicare - the federal program that serves them - is either at risk or safe will have won an important battle in the health care fight.
They're a group that is by nature skeptical, votes faithfully and in large numbers, and is keenly aware of how the government's actions can affect their circumstances.
They were the focus this past week of a partisan spat over proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage, a program that lets private insurers contract with Medicare to provide coverage.
Democrats argued it's a wasteful initiative that can be trimmed without any reductions in enrollees' benefits. Republicans countered that seniors would be hurt by the cuts, and they got a major boost from Congress' nonpartisan budget analyst, who told a Senate panel that benefits could indeed be reduced.
The disagreement led to contentious deliberations at the Senate Finance Committee over a nearly $900 billion health overhaul measure. In an indication of just how worried Democrats are about a backlash from seniors, the committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called for - and got - a federal investigation into whether private insurers were misleading their elderly patients and using "scare tactics" to try to derail the legislation.
Republicans and Democrats alike fearfully recall seniors' backlash in the late 1980s against a Medicare expansion that both parties supported. Elderly protesters revolted against the cost of the new plan, at one point mobbing Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, at an event in his Chicago district, and chasing him into a waiting car waving signs demanding the law's repeal. Congress did so shortly thereafter.
About 15 years later, Democrats working to kill President George W. Bush's plan to add a voluntary prescription drug benefit to Medicare showed videos of the Rostenkowski mob scene as a reminder that triggering seniors' fears could be politically fatal for Republicans - and potentially a winning strategy for them. The plan passed anyway, but Republicans soon had buyer's remorse as polls showed seniors were dissatisfied with the benefit.
Bush again felt the singe of seniors' fears in 2005 after Democrats stoked their opposition to his plan to add private investment accounts to Social Security. He offered only an outline of his idea and left Congress to fill in the blanks - much as Obama did this year on the health overhaul. That gave Democrats the chance to frame the plan as a costly privatization of the bedrock social program that would ultimately slash seniors' benefits. The plan went nowhere, and Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the 2006 elections.
Now GOP strategists say they have a chance to capitalize on the same dynamic to take down Democrats' health care plans and in the process earn voters' trust on the issue, traditionally a weak point for the party.
Obama "has managed to turn this into the equivalent of George Bush's Social Security effort, and seniors started to go, 'Wait, this doesn't look like it's going to work for me,"' said Republican pollster David Winston. "The Democrats have presented this unique situation where suddenly, on a very complicated issue that we've clearly been on the defensive on before, we have an opening."
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted this month showed that while the public in general was opposed to Democrats' health care proposals, seniors were almost twice as likely to be concerned. Opponents of Democrats' plans outnumbered supporters 49 percent to 34 percent. Among seniors, 59 percent were opposed compared with 31 percent in support.
It's not at all clear that Republicans can gain the upper hand in the health care debate. Distrust of Democrats doesn't necessarily translate into trust of Republicans among seniors or any other group.
What seems certain, however, is that Democrats' ability to push through a health overhaul along the lines of what Obama has called for will depend in large part on their capacity to convince seniors that it's a good deal for them.