Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. Bush have been doing everything they can think of in the past two weeks to attract the crucial votes of senior citizens.
Older voters watching the second of three presidential debates at Strawberry Lodge in West Berkeley last night, however, were not impressed.
“I can’t call this a debate at all because real differences of opinion were not permitted,” said Fran Rachel, 83, after watching the two candidates spar politely. “I would find it humorous if it weren’t so sad. They were both like puppets
The 15 men and women watching the round-table debate televised from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., murmured in agreement.
Both Gore and Bush are listening to the opinions of seniors like these because they know that more than any other age group, they will go out to the voting booths Nov. 7.
“Seniors tend to be extremely interested in the debates and hungry for information,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who wrote a book about seniors’ voting habits. “They form the backbone of campaigns. They have the time and interest to really research the issues they care about.”
They also vote more – at nearly twice the rate of young Americans. MacManus said that although Democrats have carried the senior vote in past elections, this year the senior electorate is not as predictable. “Most analysts think that the senior vote will be less cohesive than in other years,” she said. “Seniors are more in tune with the private sector and you don’t see nearly the outcry against privatization of social security that you saw in 1996.”
Dorothy Headley, 86, disagreed. “When Bush talks about young workers investing money safely in stocks instead of social security, he’s talking about a good way for social security to be lost altogether.”
Ben Kleinstein, the lone Republican in the room – the rest were either Democrats or independents – didn’t support his party’s position on health care either. “Gov. Bush should know that for most of us who lived through the Depression, investing our retirement in the stock market is just too risky.”
This small gathering of Strawberry Creek Lodge’s more than 150 residents is typical of those in their demographic bloc in that they follow politics closely and see voting as an essential civic responsibility.
According to MacManus, people over 65 comprised 16.5 percent of the voting age population in the 1996 presidential elections, but 20.3 percent of those who actually voted. Over three-fourths of that age group were registered; and two-thirds voted. In contrast, only 45.6 percent of 18 to 20 year olds registered and just over half actually voted.
Most of the people who showed up to watch last night’s debate at the senior residence said they were relieved to hear the candidates challenge each other on topics ranging from military strategy to racial profiling, and not so much on designated “senior” issues such as Social Security and Medicare. Sidney Vilean, 67, said she was more interested in what the candidates had to say about foreign policy decisions than prescription drugs. “My favorite part was when they made that list of places where the U.S. has intervened,” she said, referring to moderator Jim Lehrer’s question about eight countries where the United States has recently taken military action.
“Our intervention has been like an NFL linebacker picking a fight with a five year old to be the biggest bully on the block,” she said.
The viewers paid close attention when the candidates talked about the legacy of World War II. Everyone in the room said they had lived through that war and several others, and many were disturbed by both candidates’ promises to maintain a strong military around the globe.
“Younger people today don’t understand the real nature of war,” said Geanette Sussman, 88. “And that’s for a good reason. The history books in schools today just skim over the wars. When I talk about the rise of fascism during the Spanish civil war, for example, they just look at me like they don’t know what I’m talking about.”
But many in the group said the issues of most concern to them – affordable housing, wages, childcare, and the country’s future role in the United Nations – weren’t mentioned in the debate.
“I don’t care what their hearts say,” said Rachel, after listening to Bush defend his record on children’s health care in Texas. “I care what their budgets say.”
Several people said they were tired of being boxed into the “senior voter” category, which is often marked off from the rest of the electorate in both candidates’ campaign platforms.
“They only difference between us and younger voters is that we’re less likely to be fooled,” said one woman in the group.” We’ve seen all of this so many times before – we’ve seen the smiles, we’ve heard the politicians make promises they never end up keeping.”