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Older voters who put Trump in office have second thoughts

Mark Z. Barabak
Los Angeles Times

PEORIA, ARIZ. — Calvin Eng has little use for politicians. Democrats just want to tax, he said. Republicans just want to cut.

It seemed to Eng that Donald Trump was different than the run-of-the-mill candidate. So in 2016 the registered Republican, who considers himself more an independent, voted for Trump.

He won’t do it again in November.

The president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been terrible, the 62-year-old Scottsdale anesthesiologist said, and he’s shown absolutely no empathy for protesters peacefully demonstrating against police brutality.

“Maybe it’s a personality flaw,” said Eng, who plans to take a closer look at Democrat Joe Biden. “Or maybe he was too spoiled growing up.”

The disenchantment of older voters like Eng is further jeopardizing Trump’s difficult reelection prospects, undermining his support in key states with large senior populations such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and here in broiling Arizona.

If the pattern holds — and strategists for the president’s reelection insist it won’t — the defections could not only cost Trump a second term but also mark a major political shift. Since 2004, Republicans have enjoyed a significant advantage among older voters, whose reliable backing helped offset a substantial Democratic edge among Asian American, Black, Latino and younger voters.

In 2020, the opposite could happen, with Joe Biden’s unusually strong support among seniors making up for a less-than-robust turnout among the country’s youth.

“He looked like P.T. Barnum,” said the 80-year-old retiree, referring to the famous huckster. This time, Quinn said he felt more enthusiastic about Biden than he had when he voted for Hillary Clinton, citing the eight years Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama.

“He’ll use common sense,” said the retired men’s clothier, pausing between errands in the Phoenix suburb of Litchfield Park.

Four years ago, Trump won the senior vote by 7 to 9 percentage points. (National exit polls vary.) Today, those numbers have reversed, giving Biden the lead in most surveys among voters 50 and older.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were signs of trouble.

In 2018, Republicans barely won the senior vote after Democrats turned the midterm election into a referendum on Trump and, especially, the White House-led efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Understandably, polling has consistently shown healthcare to be a top concern among elderly Americans.

More recently, Trump indicated a willingness to weigh spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare, two programs sacred to seniors, if elected to a second term. “At the right time,” he said in a January CNBC interview, “we will take a look at that.”

Trump isn’t facing a mass defection among older voters. He maintains a seemingly solid base of support among senior white males in particular. But “even a little bit of movement is something to worry about,” said Susan MacManus, an emeritus professor at the University of South Florida who has studied voting patterns among seniors. “It’s magnified by the fact they turn out in such heavy numbers.”

Nationwide, voters 50 and older made up more than half the 2016 electorate, according to the Pew Research Center; voters 65 and older made up nearly 30% of those casting presidential ballots, even though they constituted just 15% of the population.

Trump and his reelection team are mindful of the erosion among older voters and believe his iron-fisted response to protests nationwide will end up working to his benefit by allaying the fears of seniors, who, they believe, are more unsettled than others by the country’s widespread sense of disorder.

The president has also held a number of events aimed at appealing to older Americans, including an appearance with health care officials in which he declared May “Older Americans Month” and a Rose Garden ceremony where he announced a proposal to lower the cost of insulin, helping those with diabetes.

“I hope the seniors are going to remember it,” Trump said.

But those moments have been drowned out by the president’s more vociferous and widely amplified statements surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which include downplaying its seriousness and offering numerous untested, unscientific theories on how to stop the spread. His refusal to publicly wear a protective mask, despite the advice of experts, has notably contrasted with Biden’s more careful conduct.

Throughout the crisis, Trump — who turned 74 on Sunday — has also placed a far greater emphasis on the economic toll of the novel coronavirus and the need to quickly return to pre-pandemic life than the healthcare implications and risks of reopening too quickly.

Seniors, as a group, are among the most vulnerable to severe illness and, given their television consumption, were among the likeliest to have tuned into the president’s scattershot White House briefings.

“It used to be a lot of women didn’t like Trump’s style and would say things like, ‘I wish he wouldn’t tweet,’” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has spent years researching the attitudes of female as well as senior voters.

“It was a personality thing” that could be more easily ignored, Lake went on. “Now it’s moved from a personality quirk to front and center as a leadership style, which older women in particular view very negatively.”

Vernice Ramirez, who voted for Trump four years ago, is among those having second thoughts.

“He’s really sarcastic,” said Ramirez, 63, who spent her career in retail sales. “He’s really arrogant.”

Although she worries that Biden, at age 77, may be too old for the job, Ramirez is troubled by Trump’s belligerent behavior. She brought up his recent photo opportunity holding a Bible at a church near the White House. Law enforcement officers fired tear gas at nonviolent demonstrators to make way for the president and his entourage.

“What’s with the Bible?” asked the 63-year-old Yuma retiree. “Why did they have to shoot at those people for him to go to this church?”

For now, Ramirez is uncertain how she’ll vote in November. “I’m waiting to see who else is on the ballot,” she said.

Trump, for his part, makes no apologies for acting — as his own TV ads put it — like “a bull in a china shop.”

“President Trump’s not always polite,” said one spot in heavy rotation for the past month in Arizona. “Mr. Nice Guy won’t cut it. He does it his way, not the Washington way. But Donald Trump gets it done.”

The state has long been a Republican stronghold, the land of Barry Goldwater and John McCain. But Arizona is changing as the Latino population grows and a flood of newcomers bring more moderate views from places like California. Trump won here four years ago but garnered just 48% support, and both sides agree the contest with Biden is highly competitive.

The senior vote will be key; in 2016, a quarter of the ballots were cast by those 65 or older, more than any other state.

Lynn Holleman is the rare partisan who isn’t firmly dug in one way or the other.

A Republican with self-described Democratic leanings (“I think we should feed everyone, everyone should have housing, medical care”), the 72-year-old retired real estate agent voted for Trump because she preferred him over Clinton. She thinks the president has done a reasonably good job dealing with the pandemic, but there’s that mouth of his.

“Not a good thing,” Holleman said, though “we know what’s on his mind.” And Biden, she went on, had certainly made his share of goofy statements.

Standing beneath a shade tree in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, as the temperature crept toward 104, Holleman went back and forth a bit more before suggesting she might just wait to the end to see who committed the biggest blunder come Election Day.

Then, Holleman said with a sardonic laugh, she’ll vote for the other guy.