by Jenna Johnson and Lori Rozsa, The Washington Post
Allen Lehner was a Republican until Donald Trump became his party’s nominee in 2016. The 74-year-old retiree says he could not bring himself to vote for someone who lied, belittled others, walked out on his bills and mistreated women – but he also could not bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. So he did not vote.
Trump has done nothing since to entice Lehner back.
Lehner, who now considers himself an independent, says he is frightened by the president’s lack of leadership and maturity amid the nation’s health and economic crisis. Several people in his gated community in Delray Beach, Florida, have gotten sick; at least one has died. He worries about his own health – he has an autoimmune disease – and also about his adult children, including a daughter who has gone back to work and a son whose pay has been cut.
He plans to vote for Joe Biden in November.
“Regardless of what they say about his senior moments, I think he would be good and take good care of the country,” said Lehner, who owned furniture and fireplace-supply stores in central Pennsylvania before retiring to Florida.
While Democrats have worried about Biden’s struggles to excite younger voters, older voters who are upset with the president are poised to be potentially more influential in November, especially in swing states whose populations skew their way, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In Florida, more than 20% of those who voted in the 2016 election were over age 65, according to exit polls. In 2016, Trump won the Florida senior vote by a 17-point margin over Clinton, according to exit polls. The state ranks as one Trump must almost certainly win to ensure his victory, while Biden has other paths to the White House.
Yet for months, Biden has been more popular than Trump with seniors. A national poll of registered voters released by Quinnipiac University last week shows Biden leading by 10 points among voters over 65. A Quinnipiac poll in late April found 52% of Florida seniors supporting Biden, compared with 42% for Trump, while a Fox News poll around the same time found Biden narrowly ahead.
“We have the ability to sway this election,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo declared as she opened an online town hall with fellow seniors earlier this month, which included a tutorial on voting by mail. “Trump has failed us, and it is now our turn.”
The skepticism toward the president among some seniors comes as their lives have been drastically altered by the coronavirus, which has swept through nursing homes and retirement communities across the country. In Florida, more than 80% of the 2,000-plus people killed by the virus have been over age 65, according to an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times. Even as the state has begun to reopen, most seniors have remained in their homes at the urging of their doctors or their adult children and grandchildren. Most no longer gather with others to dine, play cards, enjoy golf or the pool, or discuss politics.
Consternation runs deep among some of those loyal to the president. Dave Israel, an 80-year-old Republican who lives in the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach, is frustrated that the state did not bring coronavirus testing directly into the community of 7,000 people and has not traced enough people’s contacts after confirming cases there. He and other residents hired a private company, which has done 1,100 tests and found four cases.
“We are clearly highly susceptible,” Israel said. “We’re missing testing, and we’re missing contact tracing. We need to see that.”
He said Trump is more concerned about the economic crisis than the health one – which he understands, given the president’s background in business. Although Trump is “a little brusque, a little abrupt,” Israel said, he thinks Trump has accomplished a lot.
“If it’s Trump versus Biden, I would still support him – but the point about testing: Everybody should be tested,” he said. “I don’t see how else we’re going to get on top of this.”
Whether the shift seen in polling since Trump’s election continues through Election Day is as unpredictable as the course of the virus – and may depend on it. Yolanda Russell, who leads the Florida Democratic Senior Caucus, is waiting to see whether the crisis leads more seniors to consider Biden, or only further entrenches Trump supporters. The state party and Biden organizers have been doing “wellness checks,” calling older Democrats to see what they need and encouraging them to register to vote by mail.
Before this crisis, she said, many Florida seniors were already lonely or struggled to get groceries, find affordable housing or pay for their prescriptions. At a time when so much of life has moved inside and online, some seniors have only a simple flip phone and lack access to the Internet.
Each week for the past two months, someone Russell knows has been killed by covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. First it was her friend’s sister in Florida, then her cousin’s husband in Texas, followed by a friend’s mother in Detroit, a friend in Oregon and others. All are black, like her.
There have been graveside services, with some watching from their cars, but no gatherings in churches to mourn and pray.
“When the phone rings, you’re like: OK, what now?” said Russell, 66, who used to work in public health in Oregon. “Every phase of this has been tragic and traumatizing.”
Biden, 77, and Trump, 73, are themselves seniors – born during and just after World War II to parents who had weathered the Great Depression. They came of age during the civil rights movement and witnessed the first man walking on the moon, the creation of Medicare, the women’s liberation movement, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, rounds of foreign wars and natural disasters, recessions and the invention of the Internet, cellphones and Twitter. Their leadership styles provide voters with a stark choice.
Biden has taken on the cautions of his generation in recent months, quarantining in his Delaware home after those in his age group were asked to curb their activities to lessen their chances of being infected. Trump has flouted recommendations about social distancing and the use of masks, and has openly yearned for the mass rallies that once defined his political campaign.
“I’ve seen a lot. I was in the Vietnam War. I had my own business,” said Lehner, who lived in Pennsylvania when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant there partially melted down in 1979. “It was just panic, but we had, in a sense, we had leadership in that event. And, in fact, in a lot of events. Presidents have in the past given leadership or comfort. But there is nothing coming from our current president.”
Discussion of this latest crisis generally tends to fall along political lines: Those who already supported the president defend him, while those who already disliked the president attack him, with seemingly little room for crossover.
At the On Top of the World retirement community in Clearwater, Florida, Marvin and Sue Lazernik regularly watch the president’s press briefings and debate whom they most trust on the topic: It’s not Trump, who talks too much and seems to repeat himself, they say. It’s also not Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, who seems to contradict himself and, they believe, has undermined the president. They like Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and appreciate that she lays out what she does not know along with what she does instead of giving the easy declarative answer.
Marvin Lazernik said that while Trump is “a New York thug” who has made mistakes, his administration has been responding to a crisis that’s constantly evolving with new information and data emerging each day.
“Mistakes have been made, but they have been made honestly, not politically,” said Lazernik, 83, who is president of On Top of the World’s Ronald Reagan Republican Club. “It’s still trial and error. And it’s going to be trial and error for a long time. . . . I don’t think either party has the foggiest idea of how to fix this.”
He voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again. He does not like that California – where he lived for many years and ran a tour company – is now giving $500 in aid to undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for stimulus checks. And he does not like calls from liberal lawmakers to send most Americans $2,000 each month during this crisis, which he says will stifle their motivation to work.
He points to Florida as a success story. How does he define success?
“By being alive,” he said.
The margins of victory in Florida are so narrow that even a relatively minor defection could cost Trump the state. Florida Democratic leaders make clear that they have yet to see a massive exodus of senior voters from his base of support – but they say that if Biden can pull in 5% to 10% of older people who voted last time for Trump, he could win.
The Trump campaign has publicly dismissed suggestions that the president is struggling with some older voters, but he has begun to acknowledge that the health and economic crisis is having a bigger impact on seniors. At the same time, he and his surrogates have also continued to attack Biden’s mental acuity, calling him “Sleepy Joe” and trying to paint him as a doddering old man, a formulation that Biden allies believe will not help the president win over voters of the same age.
Assessing the damage to Trump’s prospects is difficult: In more than two dozen interviews with older Republicans and conservative-leaning independents throughout the state, most had few complaints, and those who did were hesitant to publicly criticize the president.
Tom, a 74-year-old retiree and Republican-leaning independent living in northeastern Florida, vacationed in Hong Kong and Vietnam in January. When he landed at the airport in Los Angeles in early February, no one took his temperature or asked where he had been traveling, which was standard procedure in other countries.
“January and February were totally wasted by Trump. Totally wasted,” he said, asking that his full name not be used for fear of receiving retaliation from nasty online trolls or scorn from his Republican neighbors and golf partners. “To Trump, in my opinion, the virus is nothing more than an inconvenience to him and his political ambitions. And he doesn’t really care. I don’t believe he cares about the people. I don’t think he cares about who is affected by the virus. I think it’s really for him an inconvenience.”
He has voted for Republicans about 70% of the time but voted for Obama twice. He could not vote for Clinton, because he did not think she was “presidential material,” but he also could not bring himself to vote for Trump. He instead wrote in the name of a friend for president.
This year, he donated to the presidential campaign of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and now plans to vote for Biden.
“I hope Biden wins,” he said. “I hope he handles himself well.”
In South Florida, Julio – a 68-year-old who also considers himself a fiscally conservative independent – has delayed retirement so he and his wife, who both have serious health conditions, will not suffer disruptions to their health insurance. The couple rarely leave the house and heavily disinfect all deliveries. He jokes that they are “under house arrest without the ankle bracelet.”
After voting twice for Obama, he did not vote in 2016 – and was not upset that Trump won, as he thought the businessman deserved a chance.
“I thought it would be a pretty interesting ride, and I wasn’t wrong. I just didn’t think it would be disastrous” for the economy, said Julio, who also did not want his full name to be used, to avoid offending co-workers who support the president. “He wants to say things, whether they’re true or not, to ingratiate himself. It’s a problem. There’s a trust factor there. I don’t even listen to him anymore because I can’t believe what he says. I wait until the apologies come later and the clarifications come later to understand what he really meant.”
He definitely will not vote for Trump, but he’s unsure whether he will vote for Biden. He’s concerned by the Obama administration’s investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, and an allegation of sexual assault leveled by a former Senate aide that Biden has denied. He also worries that Biden is just as prone to errors as Trump.
“He’s Mr. Gaffe. He can’t make a statement without messing it up, it seems. He just messes things up. . . . There’s always something going on. He has to be as scripted as our president does,” he said. “I mean, I know we’re not going to vote in a saint, but there are a lot of concerns.”