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Courting the coveted voters

Seniors will go to the polls in droves.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Sun City resident Janet Wilson, a 73-year-old Republican, votes every chance she gets and volunteers in campaigns.

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By STEPHEN NOHLGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2000


California, New York and the rest of this week's mega-primary states may anoint presidential contenders for both major parties. But a separate battle is still brewing in Florida -- land of pensions and early bird specials.

Older Floridians vote in droves -- two or three times as frequently as young folks. And that makes them prized targets in both the March 14 primary and the November general election.

"They very much regard voting as a civic duty, that hasn't changed since World War II," says Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida. "They equate the ballot box with freedom, which the younger generation does not."

It's no accident that Vice President Al Gore took time to travel to South Florida recently to announce a new initiative on Medicare and prescription drugs. He could have unveiled his plan in any of the states having primaries Tuesday without skipping a beat on the campaign trail.

Instead, he made a pilgrimage to vote-rich Broward County, where retirement condos are packed with hard-core Democrats from the Northeast.

"Gore thinks he can win the state" in November, says MacManus. "It's an uphill battle, but not insurmountable. But he can't carry Florida without 60 percent of the senior vote."

Traditionally, the elderly have favored Democrats. They carried Florida for Bill Clinton in 1996. But these days, demographics and voting patterns are changing, analysts say. Party loyalties are more fluid among people in their 60s, which intensifies the fight for older voters' sympathies.

"There's a distinction between the old old and the new old," says non-partisan pollster Jim Kane. "The New Deal generation, now 70 plus, are different in their attitudes toward a lot of things. Their values were forged during some of the most difficult times -- the Depression and World War II. They look at government completely different than everybody who came after them. They see government as a solution to most of the problems. Whereas the younger older voter doesn't see it that way."

In her book Targeting Senior Voters, to be published this spring by Rowman & Littlefield, McManus notes that Buddy McKay carried 52 percent of the 65-and-over set during the 1998 gubernatorial race. But the age cohort just below that -- people 60 to 64 -- gave Jeb Bush 61 percent of their vote.

Sensing the chance for inroads as the FDR generations die off, Republicans are getting righteous about key issues for seniors.

Arizona Sen. John McCain promises to use 62 percent of the federal budget surplus to shore up the Social Security trust fund, which baby boomers could drain by 2030 or so. That puts him squarely in line with people 65 and older who responded to a 1999 national poll by the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds listed fixing Social Security and Medicare as their top priority for the budget surplus. Only one in eight wanted the money used for tax cuts.

Early in election season, Texas Gov. George W. Bush talked about using the surplus for tax cuts. But with McCain continuing to challenge his front-runner status, Bush recently has tweaked his emphasis. He now says he would use half of any surplus to fund Social Security and pay down the national debt.

So far, McCain is scoring well with older voters. A nationwide Pew Research poll in February showed him beating Gore 49 to 41 percent, while Bush and Gore ran neck and neck.

Men over 60 -- the draftable generations who fought wars -- favored McCain over Gore 60 percent to 28 percent. Bush beat Gore among this group only 47 percent to 41 percent.

McCain nearly bridges the gender gap of women over 65 -- a group that has voted solidly Democratic for years. Gore would beat McCain only 45 percent to 43 percent among this group, the poll indicates. By contrast, Gore would swamp Bush 57 percent to 35 percent.

Tallahassee retiree Pauli Barnes, 73, thinks McCain's experiences as a Vietnam War POW helped build the character she yearns for in a president.

"Like many people in my generation, I came from an era when "thou shalt' and "thou shalt not' were a little more clear in our culture," says Barnes, who gets by on a $625-a-month Social Security check.

"I'm horrified by the behavior Mr. Clinton has exhibited in the White House. If he wants to carry on at midnight, outside the house, I consider him a man. When he does it in the White House, he's my president.

"McCain is the opposite of this behavior. I see him as a clear call to a return to old values. That's not to say that Gov. Bush might not have exhibited the same values in the same situation. But he hasn't been tested."

Sun City resident Janet Wilson, a 73-year-old Republican loyalist, also believes in old values. That's why she votes every chance she gets, volunteers in campaigns and recently wrote a 10-page letter to Bush, giving him campaign advice.

She likes Bush, she says, because of his leadership and experience. She also dislikes aspects of McCain's private life: his divorce and quick remarriage, his role in the Keating savings and loan scandal and what she perceives as a temper problem. "I don't want a commander-in-chief who is a hot-headed pilot."

Sentiments like those will carry Florida for Bush in the Republican primary, where Democrats and independents have no say-so, says Kane, who publishes the non-partisan Florida Voter journal.

"Older Republicans voters will gravitate to George W. -- not the least because they loved his father and mother and you can't forget his brother, who is very popular," said Kane, referring to Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I think this is going to be a tough state, no matter what happens elsewhere, for John McCain to win."

On the Democratic side, Kane thinks Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties will handily propel Gore over former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

South Florida "is definitely Gore territory. The elderly voters here loved Bill Clinton. The heart of the Democratic Party in Florida is in South Florida. These tend to be New Deal voters. It's a natural constituency for Al Gore."

Ex-Teamster Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella, 82, is frequently dubbed the "condo commando" for his ability to juice up the vote at the sprawling Century Village complex in Broward County, which contains 17,000 souls, most of them Jewish, Northeastern and Democratic.

He is backing Gore because he credits the Clinton administration for eight years of prosperity -- an accomplishment a "Depression baby" will never underestimate, he says.

Bradley may fare better in West-Central Florida, where party identification is less entrenched.

Telephone polling of frequent voters, usually seniors, "show Bradley and Gore running neck and neck," says Beth Rawlins, a Bradley coordinator in Pinellas County. "Based on the feedback from our own internal research, you couldn't call this race here."

St. Petersburg retiree John Considine, a liberal Democrat who lives half the year in Minnesota, plans to vote for Bradley because he considers him a reformer. Considine, 71, breaks the stereotype of the older voter concerned only with Social Security and Medicare. His main worry is the lack of health insurance for the working poor and children. And he thinks Bradley is heading in the right direction.

"It is amazing to me that we can have unprecedented prosperity but can't figure out how to bring these 45- to 50-million people health care," says Considine. "I'd like to see that before I get too concerned about prescription drugs for seniors."

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