By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida seniors were so rattled by proposed changes to Social Security emerging in the U.S. political debate that their consumer confidence levels plunged more than that of any other age group in August, an economic survey showed.
And that was before Texas Governor Rick Perry called the popular retirement program a "Ponzi scheme" during last week's debate among Republican presidential candidates.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Social Security in Florida, a longtime retirement haven that is the most populous of the political swing states.
Consumer confidence among Floridians over 60 plunged nine points to 57 in August, according to the latest monthly survey conducted by the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
It was the biggest drop among any age group in the survey, which put the overall Florida confidence score at 62, barely above recession level.
"A lot of that had to do with the frank and open candidate discussions about including modifications to Social Security and Medicare as part of the solution" during the contentious debt limit debate in July and early August, said bureau director Chris McCarty, who conducted the survey.
"As the discussions and the media attention and all that rolled out, people became increasingly nervous. ... In Florida, obviously, we're disproportionately seniors."
Social Security is funded by payroll taxes and has not contributed to the deficit, but it has increasingly become a target of politicians who want to reduce the size and role of government. Prospective changes in Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly, and in military retirement benefits also weigh heavily in Florida.
"There's absolutely no clarity about what will happen," McCarty told Reuters. "That's why seniors are so gloomy, particularly for those folks who are completely dependent on those entities. Many of them don't have an option of doing something else."
Retirees generally have to be at least 65 to collect full Social Security benefits. The consumer survey does not separate respondents beyond "over 60," but "I guarantee it's people who have retirement on their minds," said McCarty, who is 53.
To understand the impact of Social Security and other retiree issues in Florida during the presidential election, consider:
-- Florida has 3.8 million Social Security recipients, second only to California.
-- It is the fourth most populous state and is notoriously fickle in presidential elections. It went for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008, Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 and famously split dead even in 2000. It gained two electoral college votes as a result of the last Census, so its influence in the 2012 election will be greater than ever.
-- Florida is no longer the oldest U.S. state. But its median age was 40.7 in 2010, two years older than in 2000.
-- About a third of Florida's registered voters are over 60, but since they turn out most reliably at the polls, they account for nearly half the actual electorate.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Christopher Wilson)